Lake Tahoe Fire Victims Blame Local Agency

Residents in South Lake Tahoe are directing their anger over a raging fire that has ruined homes and land at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

The residents say the agency, which makes development decisions for the Lake Tahoe Basin, prohibited trimming trees despite the proximity to homes.

Meanwhile the fire, raging since Sunday in the pristine area known for its resorts, could jeopardize some 950 homes as winds pick up again.

The fire is 55 percent contained. It has charred more than 3,000 acres, or about 4.7 square miles. Crews expect to have it fully contained by early next week provided winds settle down.

Hundreds of firefighters spent Wednesday widening fire lines and searching for embers. The work is grueling but critical, said Timothy Evans with the Forest Service.

"These embers can pick up and just go. As you can see, we're in a meadow that is supposed to have water and it is bone dry out here," Evans said.

But local residents lay the blame for the widespread damage on the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency not the dry atmosphere.

"There are seven large trees with the branches touching my house and I am still denied permission to take them down," said Rosemary Sanchez.

She moved into her house three decades ago. She was lucky. Her house didn't burn down, but more than 20 homes on her block did.

These homes are nestled in national forest lands where the line between yard and forest is often impossible to find. Signs all around South Lake Tahoe implore residents to clear space around their homes at least 30 feet. But Sanchez says three years ago she just gave up on the trees near her home because of the planning agencies policies.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency can issue fines to violators.

John Singlaub, the agency's executive director, says misconceptions abound, and that the agency has improved its policies in recent years. Any tree can be cleared to prevent fire danger with a permit. The local fire department can even give permission to do it. The problem, he said, is that many people apparently didn't know that.

"Unfortunately when we send out a press release to the media it doesn't make the front page. If nothing else comes out of this disaster, we'll have a lot more people better informed about what they need to do and what they can do," Singlaub said.

Investigators are searching for the fire's origin, but a cause is yet to be identified.

Tamara Keith reports from member station KQED.

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