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Safety agencies criticize bear hazards

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun file photoJim Atchison looks at nail boards outside his sister's cabin near Truckee in September. Atchison discovered the boards while doing maintenance on the cabin; former tenants made the bear mats to cover the windows and prevent bears from breaking into the home.
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With hundreds of break-ins by black bears over the summer, some Tahoe-area residents took drastic measures to protect their homes from unwanted visits by the omnivorous animals.

Bear un-welcome mats, also called nail boards or bear spike strips, are sheets of plywood with long nails or screws driven through, sharp ends up, that residents position beneath windows or doorways. The aim is to discourage any hungry bruin that wants to break into a home for food.

Now, officials with three first-responder agencies are speaking out against the nail-studded boards, citing their concern for public safety.



North Tahoe Fire Protection District, Placer County and El Dorado County Sheriff’s offices have all recommended that the public remove the bear spikes for the winter season.

North Tahoe Fire’s Battalion Chief Dave Ruben said residents should remove the mats, and consider putting them away for good. One reason, he said, is that district personnel often use unconventional means to gain entry into a house in the event of a medical emergency or a fire.



“We don’t always go to the front door to respond to a fire,” Ruben said.

He added that an injury from a nail board could end a firefighter’s or police officer’s career, an outcome that could cripple a small department’s ability to respond to emergencies.

“We are not large agencies and [if] you lose one person it has a big impact,” said Placer Sheriff’s Sgt. Helen Thomas.

In August, North Tahoe Fire responded to a private residence on Old County Road, where a woman fell on one of the boards, according to Capt. Bill Atchley. The woman apparently had fallen forward, sustaining wounds to her face. From out of town, the woman was visiting a friend’s unoccupied house.

Because of privacy safeguards in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, department officials would not identity the injured woman.

Capt. Atchley said the fire department is sympathetic to the public’s desire to protect their homes from bear break-ins, but he urged residents to think about the potential for injuries to human visitors, like youths selling magazine subscriptions, before installing an unwelcome mat.

“We can’t tell people what they can and can’t do at their homes, but they’re putting officers in danger,” Thomas said.

Ruben, Thomas and El Dorado County Sheriff’s Lt. Les Lovell all stressed that 6 to 12 inches of snow on top of a bear mat could lead to a severely wounded first responder. Lovell wrote a column for the Tahoe Daily Tribune on Nov. 5 asking residents to pick up the spiked planks before winter.

“We are asking for [the public’s] cooperation in protecting the firefighters and police officers that are protecting them,” Ruben said.

Officials with the BEAR League recommend the use of studded planks only as a last resort to ward off the omnivorous mammals, but most of the barbed boards that league Executive Director Ann Bryant has seen were poorly constructed.

“People have not been making them according to how we’ve told them,” Bryant said. “[They] are making them with nails that are way too long. We tell them to have them stick up a half-inch and lightly tack them down so they can be moved.”

This summer bear activity was at an all-time high in the Tahoe Basin, Bryant said. She estimated 250 bear entries into homes, although that includes homes that bears targeted repeatedly.

If the mats are made correctly, the medieval-type devices should discourage a bear but not maim it, according to Bryant. She said the boards originated in Alaska to keep the grizzly bears out of the salmon canneries at night.


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