Expert: Tahoe Faces Same Fire Threat As So. California

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Overstocked forests around Lake Tahoe are in danger of catastrophic wildfires like those that burned 750,000 acres in Southern California last year, industry experts warned at a logging conference Thursday.

"I want the people of Lake Tahoe to know they will not be safe if all they do is clear brush around their homes or build narrow little fuel breaks," said Tom Bonnicksen, a forestry professor at Texas A&M.

"It is a false sense of security. Those are the last lines of defense," he told reporters at the 55th annual Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference.

"Tahoe could burn and if it does, it will be virtually unstoppable. ... I don't think people in the Tahoe basin fully appreciate exactly how dangerous it is."

Three Californians - Bill Dennison, a Plumas County commissioner and director of the conference, San Bernardino County fire marshal Peter Brierty and Don Sterrenburg, president of a homeowners' association - joined Bonnicksen if drawing comparisons between conditions at Tahoe and the ones that existed before fires destroyed more than 3,600 homes and killed two dozen people in Southern California last year.

They urged more intensive logging and thinning of forests miles away from residential areas.

"That's where the fires come roaring into communities from," said Bonnicksen, an expert on California forests who has testified before Congress for more than a decade in support of increased logging on federal lands.

"These flames are 200-feet tall, burning at 2,000 degrees, moving at sometimes a mile a minute," he said.

Some large trees will have to be cut as well as underbrush, Bonnicksen said. He criticized Forest Service restrictions putting most trees larger than 30 inches in diameter off limits to logging under the agency's latest plan for the Sierra Nevada.

Jay Watson, the wildland fire program director for The Wilderness Society based in California, described Bonnicksen as "the timber industry's hired, scientist gun."

"The wood products industry can play an important role in reducing fire risks and even in ecological restoration," Watson said.

"But if they demand that they still be able to fire up the chain saws on America's old-growth forests, then they are in for a buzz-saw of opposition," he said.

"By and large, it is not the large, old fire-resistant trees that need to be removed to reduce fire risks. It is the surface fuels, the brush and accumulated woody debris and the small- to mid-diameter trees that serve as ladder fuels," allowing fire to climb from the forest floor into tree crowns, Watson said.

Brierty said he's spreading the word about how lucky San Bernardino County was so other communities can guard against disaster.

"We dodged a bullet. We have 50,000 homes in the San Bernardino Mountains. We lost 500. We could have lost every single one of them," he said.

Sterrenburg said the Dogwood-Blue Jay Canyon Homeowners Association was one of the most active in wildfire prevention in the mountains above San Bernardino.

"We took an inventory of dead trees. We have taken out 7,200 trees over 148 acres and we're not done yet," he said.

Brierty said "bureaucratic red tape" prevented homeowners from removing trees they viewed as a fire risk on their own property.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's regulation requiring a permit to remove any tree larger than 6 inches in diameter "is silly," Bonnicksen said.

"It is scientifically unjustified," he said.

The agency's officials said they do not believe it has prevented any landowner from reducing fire threats on their property.

"It's a safety gap so landowners don't just go out and start removing lots of vegetation for view enhancement or for no apparent reason," said Mike Vollmer, a soil scientist who is the regional planning agency's vegetation program manager.

It also is intended to help guard against erosion that poses a threat to Lake Tahoe's clarity, he said.

Vollmer said fire threats in Southern California are different than those at Tahoe.

"Fuels are a very important part of fire behavior but the biggest driver is weather," he said.

"In Southern California, there was a weather pattern for three days with hot, dry winds blowing to the ocean. We don't typically have those kinds of weather patterns here," he said.

"I'm not saying it's not possible. We just don't see the same event happening at Lake Tahoe."