Thin or Get Thinned | SierraSun.com

Thin or Get Thinned

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunKenny Baker and Matt McGrath, who work for North Tahoe Fire District Defensible Space Program, feed tree branches into a chipper outside a property at Dollar Point Tuesday afternoon.

The Placer County Office of Emergency Services is crafting an ordinance that would give fire departments the power to order defensible-space work on vacant lots, with or without the owner’s cooperation.

Current state law requires defensible space for improved lots with structures. But the public resources code does not contain any language about defensible space on unimproved lots.

The ordinance, which would extend the state code, focuses on enforcing the 100 feet of defensible space requirement around homes and structures in the Tahoe area. If the designated 100 feet crosses onto an adjacent property that’s undeveloped, the fire district would have the ability to inspect and order fuel removal on the unimproved lot.

Debuting as a pilot program in its initial year, the proposed ordinance will first be reviewed by the Placer County board of supervisors at its Oct. 23 meeting. The North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District in Incline Village is looking at a similar ordinance.

“Essentially what the ordinance does, it’s a tool for enforcement for the fire agencies that are fundamentally the experts for the property owners on, really, what the treatments for fuels should be,” said Program Director Rui Cunha of the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

The ordinance takes into account the ability of fire districts to enforce defensible space, Cunha said. It states that if the property owner does not comply with defensible space orders on their vacant lot after several notifications, the fire department has the authority to contract a crew and complete the work.

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Fire officials would then send an invoice to the property owner, Cunha said. If the bill is not paid, the sum would become an assessment paid with property taxes.

North Tahoe Fire Protection District officials said the ordinance is a good start. But they also said they are concerned about glitches they foresee ” funding being the most prominent obstacle to enforcement.

“Our main concern is, while we certainly agree with the intention of getting … the problem on vacant lots corrected, there’s a substantial cost associated with inspecting all those lots,” said North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw in a phone interview.

The ordinance allows for a quarter-million dollars in seed money for its first year to start the pilot program ” $50,000 for educational outreach and additional inspections on both developed and undeveloped property. The remaining $200,000 would go into a revolving fund to cover the up-front expense of contract labor if a property owner does not comply and fire personnel unilaterally order defensible space work.

“I’m concerned about getting into a program with seed money and then not being able to fully fund it over time,” Whitelaw said.

North Tahoe Forest Fuels Manager Stewart McMorrow said basic defensible space on an average lot currently costs between $500 to $1,000, meaning the budgeted revolving fund would allow the fire district to mandate work on 200 parcels.

“Maybe that will be enough, maybe it won’t,” McMorrow said. “If next fire season is anything like this year … I suspect people are going to form businesses around this.”

Cunha said the ordinance and further education would encourage property owners to complete abatement work themselves. Ideally, the revolving fund would stay untouched.

Funding is already an issue at the North Tahoe fire district, evident in the district’s current mail-in assessment measure that would generate an additional $625,000 a year. The money is earmarked to finance further defensible space inspections and prevention efforts, as well as improve emergency response, Whitelaw said.

North Tahoe Fire officials are also skeptical about the amount of administrative work the ordinance would impose on the fire district. Enforcing defensible space on vacant lots would require crews to inspect the lot, and then follow up with several visits to ensure compliance.

Chipping crews are currently overwhelmed with work as it is, and are scheduling appointments four to five weeks in advance, according to their phone message.

The proposed ordinance, fire officials say, would also hold various property owners to a different standard. A county ordinance only has the capacity to enforce defensible space on private vacant lots.

Unimproved lots owned by state or federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Tahoe Conservancy, would not be held accountable by the ordinance.

“That is the only sticking point with this ordinance, that we can’t force a higher-level government to do this as well,” McMorrow said.

He predicted a conflict between private citizens and government agencies that also own neighboring vacant lots with untreated fuels.