My Turn: Calfire in the Basin: Efficient or costly?
October 25, 2007
The recent article (“Calfire may be stationed again at Lake Tahoe” Sierra Sun Oct. 16) has lots of potential political and administrative issues that need to be addressed. Joe Millar, U.S. Forest Service Northern California Operations) made a statement in the article saying “establishing a Calfire presence in the Basin would add another player to the already complicated web of agencies operating there.”
I could not agree more. The proposal is to have Calfire take over direct protection responsibility on the 32,000 State Responsibility Areas (SRAs). The city of South Lake Tahoe would be excluded. Calfire would be responsible for vegetation fire and local fire districts would take care of the structures. Unless re-negotiated, the Forest Service would maintain fire suppression responsibility for the hundreds of Santini/Burton lands, purchased under a buy-back program, located in and adjacent to the urban areas. These properties range in size from less than one acre to much larger parcels. The Forest Service would also be responsible for the rest of the national forest land in the Tahoe Basin.
I am having a hard time reconciling why we need all these different fire districts and government agencies to provide fire protection for our communities? It seems every time I open the paper, answers to problems are to add another bureaucratic layer to what we already have. There are other options here.
We could look at the option of having Calfire provide all the protection on the SRAs.
This would eliminate the need for the existing fire districts board of directors, fire chiefs, and administration staff. Calfire could absorb the existing firefighters and equipment into their organization. These contracts can be expensive and I don’t think Calfire offers advanced EMS service.
Perhaps the possibility of creating one special fire district, incorporating the existing districts (Lake Valley, Fallen Leaf, Meeks Bay and North Tahoe) with one board and one chief could be examined as another way of reducing the bureaucratic layers. The newly created district would have wildland and structure protection responsibilities. I suspect our present tax assessments would be adjusted but I don’t know if it would be up or down.
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If the Calfire proposal should occur, where will the two state engines be located? The Sierra Sun article mentions North Shore and South Shore. The North Shore is a big area. A response from Kings Beach to Meeks Bay is a long one. The current situation of the local fire and the Forest Service arriving first would likely still occur because the fire districts have more engines disbursed over their protection boundaries. The present fire districts and USFS fire personnel have been able to suppress with minimal loss, 99.9 percent of wildland incidents. Most homes lost (excluding Angora) have started in the home, before spreading to the wildland areas. The Angora Fire outcome would not have changed with the additional Calfire presence.
What is the potential cost for this minimal additional engine coverage? There has to be cost ” nothing is free. Calfire engines are costly, approximately $700,000 per engine. Presently some taxpayers are paying at least two separate fire assessments to their districts. During past state legislature sessions there have been proposals to levy a fee (tax) on every privately held parcel located inside an SRA. California Tahoe properties, outside the City of South Lake Tahoe, are considered SRAs. There a many SRAs located throughout California and the revenue will be significant. You can bet that someday a tax like this will be approved.
If Calfire does provide this minimal coverage and statewide parcel tax is approved, at some future date you will be seeing this assessment on your tax bill. I think this will make it harder for the districts to win approval for future assessment increases.
The current level of fire protection is adequate. How many wildland fires do the Tahoe Basin fire agencies presently respond to? What is the average yearly acreage burned? How many wildland fire responses occur after 8 p.m.?
Do we need another layer of government bureaucracy? Do we need to spend $1.4 million limited tax dollars for two fire engines? I could, however, support two Calfire conservation camp firefighting handcrews assigned here, to assist with our attempts to get a handle on our fuels treatment situation. That would be far more effective. Calfire engine crews are not project crews.
I am a retired Forest Service engine captain. I spent the last 20 years of my career working at the Tahoe Basin. I can remember years when I did not have a fire response in my response area for the whole fire season. My personal belief is the money to fund costly Calfire engine crews in the Tahoe Basin would be better used elsewhere. Here, they would be doing a lot of waiting. If we have unusual fire weather conditions, “predicted red flag days,” a temporary, pre-positioning of suppression resources is a much more cost-effective suppression strategy.