Bistate Panel Finalizing Tahoe Fire Report

RENO, Nev. (AP) - A bistate panel is finalizing recommendations to reduce the threat of wildfires at Lake Tahoe like the one that destroyed 254 homes last summer.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons formed the Tahoe Basin Fire Commission last year after the Angora fire. The commission's report is due by March 21.

Some participants in the effort say it represents a long-needed shift in direction to protect life and property at the famous mountain lake.

But conservationists worry Tahoe's sensitive environment could be put at risk in a rush to respond to issues arising from last summer's blaze.

Some changes already have been implemented.

At the urging of Tahoe's fire districts, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency last November altered regulations to increase the size of trees that can be cut without a permit to reduce fire danger on private property from 6 inches to 14 inches in diameter.

The TRPA came under harsh criticism after last year's fire, with many residents complaining that regulations designed to protect Lake Tahoe's clarity exacerbated fire danger.

Another key proposal would require that pine needles useful on the ground to control erosion be cleared from 5 to 30 feet around homes each spring to reduce fire danger during the summer.

"That's a great step. That was one of our greatest concerns," Mike Brown, chief of the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

One idea discussed last December would alter the bistate compact that created TRPA to make wildfire prevention the agency's top priority. Such an action would require approval by both state's legislatures and governors, Congress and the president.

Another big obstacle is money.

"One of the real difficulties will be funding," said John Singlaub, TRPA executive director.

With Nevada and California now dealing with a sour economy and substantial funding shortages, financing costly efforts to reduce fire danger at Lake Tahoe could prove a major challenge, Singlaub said.

Allen Biaggi, Nevada director of Conservation and Natural Resources and a member of the fire commission, agreed.

"Funding is obviously a big deal because this is very expensive," he said.

Biaggi said one of the most important tasks to reduce fire danger is to thin forests in stream areas like Angora Creek, where last year's fire exploded into its highest intensity.

But conservationists say significant thinning within stream areas should be considered carefully.

"There could be a significant danger," Donahoe said. "This is Tahoe and we've invested over a billion dollars in saving this lake.

"Let's not jeopardize this investment by making it an either-or." Donahoe said he's concerned the fire commission is placing too great an emphasis on thinning remote areas of the forest - activity that could require construction of damaging roads on steep terrain when more emphasis should be placed on requiring fire-resistent building materials for homes and encouraging defensible space around those homes.

"I don't think we need to sacrifice the environment to keep us safe," Donahoe said.

But Sig Rogich, the Las Vegas businessman and Republican power broker tapped by Gibbons as co-chairman of the fire commission, said a common-sense approach to protecting Tahoe as well as its residents is needed.

"It's been a one-way street for the last 30 years or so," Rogich said. "I think this is way overdue."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)