Catastrophic fire: Risks are rising
Unless we act, a catastrophic wildfire will someday devastate our lives, homes, businesses, forests, wildlife, and yes, turn Lake Tahoe and our rivers brown. In 2003 the Olds wildfire fueled by thick, diseased and dead trees threatened Lake Arrowhead and destroyed 300 homes. A fire in the San Bernardino National Forest burned 91,000 acres, destroyed 993 homes, and threatened Big Bear Lake. These were part of a larger catastrophe of fifteen fires burning 738,000 acres, destroying over 3,600 homes, killing 24 people and costing $142 million to fight. Recently five firemen lost their lives fighting 90-foot-tall walls of flame moving 40 mph near Twin Pines in Riverside County. Raging wildfires, started by arsonists or lightening, are at home in the Sierra as well as Southern California. The catastrophic Southern California fires ought to be a wake-up call to susceptible Sierra communities Foresthill, Meadow Vista, Colfax and communities on the west and north shores of Lake Tahoe and all the way to Oregon. Want to save Lake Tahoe? Think about the muddy runoff of silt after a catastrophic fire in the Tahoe Basin, which could destroy the clarity of Lake Tahoe in a single season. If that happens the billion dollars being spent to keep Tahoe blue will all have been wasted. Tahoe will not be blue anymore.We have not seen the worst yet in destruction of lives, property, water quality, wildlife habitat. The Gap fires devastation could have been worse had winds been higher or from the wrong directions 25mph from the southwest or 45 mph from the northeast.The risks are rising dramatically. Insects and drought kill trees and brush. Historically unprecedented tree density blots out sunlight and kill more trees. All build up woody debris and dead trees. Past forest management has allowed trees to grow at densities ten times greater than nature. We cannot save forests by preventing any tree thinning. The Star Fire near Foresthill in 2002 destroyed an entire forest. Exasperated by forest policies and environmental litigation, the Forest Service cannot keep up with fuel buildups time bombs guaranteeing catastrophic wildfires in our neighborhood in the near future. In recent years the Star, Gap and Ralston fires demonstrated both dangers and solutions. In the Ralston fire, the Forest Service urged the residents of Michigan Bluff, Baker Ranch and Volcanoville to evacuate as homes along Mosquito Ridge Road were threatened. Luckily, the Foresthill Fire and Firesafe Council, PG&E, and the Placer County Water Agency had actively thinned trees and brush creating defensible space. Also good winds and weather prevented the fire from jumping the river.After the Gap Fire off Interstate 80 near Emigrant Gap five years ago, the burned area was cleaned of dead trees and brush in two months on private land. Yet on our national forests salvageable trees lay rotting and insect infested while lawsuits raged. The delays lost the feds $1.35 million in timber sales, which would have covered the cost to taxpayers of $739,000 to replant trees and remove woody debris fuels after the 8, 423-acre Gap Fire. A $439,000 grant is aiding the North Tahoe Fire Protection District and others in thinning high danger areas in the North Tahoe area. Placer County now requires homeowners to clean brush and cut limbs to provide 100 feet of defensible space. A fire near Granlibakken in early October did not explode into an uncontrolled crown fire precisely because the local Fire Safe Council cleared away dead brush and thinned trees. This stopped the fire from leaping from structure to structure or from tree crown to tree crown.A big missing piece is Forest Service land where thinning dead and burned debris is hampered by interminably long federal bureaucratic processes. Similarly, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has obstructed the cutting of trees even near airport runways where dangers to the public are even more transparent. Ive supported HR 4200 and Senate bill 2079 to speed up the process of cleaning up after wildfires and to create revenues to remove fuels. Regulatory reforms, biomass plants, air pollution credits are some ideas for generating new market-based revenues that will enabling the Forest Service to scientifically treat rather than triage our forests, our communities, our water supplies and our wildlife.There are economical means to dispose of excess fuels. This includes timely harvesting of downed or burned trees and using the remaining biomass to produce energy by burning or fermentation into ethanol. Currently, some brush and debris are being chipped and shipped from Granlibakken to Loyalton for energy production. Its a modest start. I have worked to develop biomass energy projects. I have supported a helicopter for the Sheriff to provide rescue, surveillance and fire fighting water. Public safety is the first priority of government. I do not want to be the public official, like the San Bernardino supervisor who was asked, What did you do and had no answers. Bruce Kranz is Placer Countys District 5 supervisor.
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