My Turn: Lahontan has helped reduce Basin fire risk
In the aftermath of the Angora fire, we at the Lahontan Water Quality Control Board understand that people are angry. We share the frustration that more wasn’t done to protect us in the Lake Tahoe region from wildfire. After all, we live here, too. We face the same risks you do, and some of us have lost everything we own.
At the Water Board, we place a high priority on reducing fire hazard while also protecting the clarity of Lake Tahoe. This past winter, for example, Water Board staff worked closely with the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs to simplify requirements for firesafe projects. The resulting policy gives individuals a lot of leeway to act. For example:
– You can create defensible space within 150 feet of your home without even applying to the Water Board.
– If you want to extend a firesafe project beyond 150 feet of your home, the Water Board has made it easier to apply for a permit and will give high priority to reviewing your application.
– Applying to cut trees on your property is free.
The Water Board has also put its money where its mouth is to help the Forest Service and local fire districts reduce wildfire risk. For example, we awarded a Prop 40 grant to the Lake Valley Fire District to help fund homeowners’ efforts to reduce fuels. This not only relieved the district of costs, it made free services available to homeowners. We hope to get more such funding to further help fire districts.
Lahontan has long sought to address wildfire risk while protecting the lake. For 10 years, the Lahontan Water Board has encouraged local and regional organizations to reduce wildfire potential in areas that pose a low threat to water quality – namely, on low slopes and outside of stream environment zones (SEZs) or places with sensitive soils. Between Glenbrook and Cascade Lake, about 90 percent of the wildland-urban interface could be treated without threatening water quality. It’s truly unfortunate that funding for critical firesafe projects has fallen far short of the need.
At the same time, the Water Board has encouraged organizations to get funding for research into how to conduct firesafe projects on more sensitive lands (i.e. about 10 percent of the area between Glenbrook and Cascade Lake). This summer, the Water Board and the Forest Service are studying the effects of using low-impact equipment to reduce fuels in sensitive meadows.
The Water Board is always eager to work with the fire districts, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry to help design firesafe projects that can readily be approved. One way they could get approval is to design projects that meet several objectives.
For example, projects that restore stream zones, or improve wildlife habitat, or provide recreation opportunities will be reviewed differently than ones that reduce fire hazard alone. This makes sense because it uses taxpayers dollars more efficiently.
Addressing the wildfire risk in the Tahoe Basin is an enormous task. Tackling it will require better leadership from all – individuals, community leaders and government officials alike – and we include ourselves in that statement. Blaming and creating scapegoats only fragments us at the very time we need to come together. The truth is we all want the same thing: We want to keep our homes safe and Tahoe blue. We will achieve that goal more quickly if we work together.