California, Nevada Governors Form Commission to Study Wildfires

By: Amanda Fehd
By: Amanda Fehd

A 23-member commission will examine whether bureaucratic delays and government mistakes contributed to a devastating South Lake Tahoe wildfire last June that generated fierce criticism from local residents.

"Where there is gridlock today, tomorrow we need to have effective, efficient policies in place for the protection of homes," Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons said as he and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced their plan Wednesday.

The California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission will review land-use and other regulations affecting the Lake Tahoe basin in an attempt to prevent another catastrophic wildfire from striking the region.

The Angora fire, started by an illegal campfire, destroyed 254 homes and scorched 3,100 acres.

Gibbons said there has been "over regulation" at the resort community. Schwarzenegger said the commission will examine whether mistakes were made and, if so, how officials in both states can learn from them.

Even as the governors were announcing their plan, area residents
questioned the need for a government commission.

Residents have raised their concerns several times in the fire's aftermath about the complicated layers of government agencies and
restrictions that many believe have impaired fire-prevention efforts.

"I think there are way too many (rules), and they drop them or add them as they go. They are very confusing," said Tony Colombo, a former restaurant owner who lost his home in the fire.

He said he was skeptical the commission would do any good.

"I hope the best for it, but I think they should inject some longtime residents on it that can offer a more balanced view, more spirited debate," he said.

The commission will have 16 voting and six nonvoting members appointed by the governors plus one voting member from the U.S. Forest Service. It will present its recommendations to the governors by March 21.

Keith Cooney, a renter whose home was burned in the fire, said commission members should be elected, not appointed.

"Let us manage our own lives and our own homes. We don't need
people from the outside telling us what to do," he said.

Nevertheless, he said re-examining the overlapping levels of bureaucracy and the complex maze of regulations was necessary. Many residents have complained that the regional planning agency is too involved, to the point where home owners are not even allowed to
clear pine needles from their properties.

"We are definitely over-regulated up here," Cooney said. "I've never lived anywhere where they tell you whether you can cut a tree down or what color you can paint your house. It's ridiculous."

Asked Wednesday about the criticism of the regional agency, Schwarzenegger said, "We'll make it part of the solution. That's why we have this commission together."

The effort by the two governors emerged just as preliminary studies are suggesting that years of effort to thin overgrown forests on public land around the burned neighborhoods helped reduce the fire's intensity. In previously thinned areas, only 21 percent of trees were killed by the fire.

Such thinning likely saved dozens of homes, said Hugh Safford, an ecologist with the Forest Service and author of one report.

Still, many homes burned because they were not protected from flying embers that rained down ahead of the main fire front. Those homes might have been saved had home owners cleared around their property and used fire-resistant materials during construction, the reports say.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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