Lake Tahoe Fire Victims Blame Local Agency The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is criticized for prohibiting the trimming of trees close to homes around South Lake Tahoe. A devastating wildfire there is now 55 percent contained, but still threatens nearly 1,000 homes.
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Lake Tahoe Fire Victims Blame Local Agency

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Lake Tahoe Fire Victims Blame Local Agency

Lake Tahoe Fire Victims Blame Local Agency

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California, heavy wind gusts are forecast today in South Lake Tahoe. That's where a wild fire is threatening 950 more homes. Firefighters say the blaze is mostly contained, but residents are directing their anger at one local agency.

Tamara Keith of member station KQED reports.

(Soundbite of fire hose)

TAMARA KEITH: On the frontlines of the Angora fire, it smells like a mix of fireplace and carwash as firefighters spray a soapy water mixture on smoldering hot spots. Hundreds spent the day yesterday near Highway 89 widening fire lines and searching out embers.

The work is grueling, but it's critical, says Timothy Evans with the Forest Service.

Mr. TIMOTHY EVANS (U.S. Forest Service): These embers can pick and just go. You'll look at the trees here, it's very dry. We're standing in a meadow that has been on fire. Meadows typically do not burn, but you can see that we're in a meadow that is supposed to have water, and it's bone-dry out here.

KEITH: The Sierra snowpack was less than 30 percent of normal this year. The tender dry fuel is one reason this fire was so ferocious. But local residents have another theory. Many blame the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the agency that makes development decisions for the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Ms. ROSEMARY SANCHEZ (Resident, Lake Tahoe): Seven large trees with the branches touching my house, and I am still denied permission to take them down.

KEITH: Rosemary Sanchez moved into her house on Mule Deer Circle 30 years ago. She was lucky. Her house didn't burn down. But more than 20 homes on their block did. These homes are nestled in national forestlands, 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 home because of the planning agency's policies.

Ms. SANCHEZ: And even if you do take them down, they will come and arrest you. You're trying to protect your home, and they will come and arrest you because you have not gotten the permission, which they continually deny.

KEITH: Actually, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency can't arrest people. But it can issue fines. John Singlaub, the agency's executive director, says misconceptions abound, and he asserts his 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. Problem is, he says, many people apparently didn't know that.

Mr. JOHN SINGLAUB (Executive Director, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency): And unfortunately, when we send out a press release to the media and it says, you know, TRPA and the Lake Valley Fire District signed an agreement, it doesn't make the front page. You know, I think if nothing else out of this disaster, we'll have a lot more people a lot better informed about what they need to do and what they can do.

Mr. JORDAN MORGANSTERN (Resident, Lake Tahoe): My name is Jordan Morganstern. I'm a local resident…

KEITH: The issue blew up yesterday at a press conference with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A resident jumped in and started bashing the planning agency. Schwarzenegger tried to diffuse the situation.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): The biggest mistake that you can do when something like this happens and the most common thing that happens is finger pointing, where everyone starts pointing fingers at everybody. We don't want that.

KEITH: Finger pointing or not, there's going to be a whole lot of debate about how best to manage the forests surrounding South Lake Tahoe, as well as questions about restoring habitat and rebuilding homes.

But first, firefighters need to get a handle on this blaze. Fire officials say they expect to have it fully contained by July 3rd.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in South Lake Tahoe.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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