California, Nevada Eye Ways to Cut Fire Risks The governors of California and Nevada have created a bi-state commission to come up with new ideas for reducing fire risk in the region.
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California, Nevada Eye Ways to Cut Fire Risks

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California, Nevada Eye Ways to Cut Fire Risks

California, Nevada Eye Ways to Cut Fire Risks

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Here in California, around South Lake Tahoe, residents are still coming to terms with the Angora fire, which destroyed more than 250 homes in June. They're asking what could have been done to prevent it. And fire officials in California are looking to Nevada, which has devoted considerable money and attention to fire prevention.

As Tamara Keith of member station KQED reports, one Nevada community in particular has taken the lead.

TAMARA KEITH: Fire Division Chief Norb Szczurek drives his truck up a winding street in a subdivision in Incline Village on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. The homes all have wood detailing that makes the neighborhood look like something out of "The Sound of Music." Motioning to the steep hillside above the homes, Szczurek says it has been cleared of brush and many trees have been removed.

Mr. NORB SZCZUREK (North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District): We've broken up the fuel continuity to where we don't believe that we would have a high-intensity fire come through here.

KEITH: Szczurek leads the fuels management program for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District. He oversees two 20-person hand-crews. He calls them extreme gardeners. They thin forested lands, help homeowners clear defensible space around their homes, and set controlled burns to clear away brush.

Mr. SZCZUREK: We were one of the first in the western United States to take the proactive approach of doing fuels treatment, not just recommending defensible space to homeowners, but the fire district themselves going out, finding the funding and taking that proactive approach.

KEITH: Szczurek stops in another neighborhood and hikes up a hill to show off his crew's handywork. In the past five years they've created a halo, a protective ring around Incline Village.

Mr. SZCZUREK: So what we're going to walk to is part of our halo that we've done understory burning on.

KEITH: The halo is designed to slow the advance of a wildfire.

Mr. SZCZUREK: Then you can see we have greatly reduced the ground fuel load. We've thinned out some trees.

KEITH: Szczurek's agency was the first to sign an agreement with regional environmental regulators allowing fire officials to mark trees for removal from people's property. Before, it was quite an undertaking, as residents had to go to the environmental agency themselves to get permits. Now all of the fire districts around the lake in both California and Nevada have followed Szczurek's lead and have similar cooperative agreements.

(Soundbite of spray paint can)

KEITH: Across the border in California just miles from the side of the Angora wildfire, Martin Goldberg marks a tree for removal with red spray paint. Goldberg is the forestry supervisor for the Lake Valley Fire Protection District. A local resident called him for a consultation.

Unidentified Man #1: You know, I don't want to get that canopy far and then torch the deck.

Mr. MARTIN GOLDBERG (Forestry Supervisor, Lake Valley Fire Protection District): Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: That's what...

Mr. GOLDBERG: We can move the - we can take these two in between, kind of open up between these two trees and mark them.

KEITH: Ever since the fire, Goldberg says residents have been clamoring to have their homes inspected. Before the blaze, Goldberg says he tried to generate interest in fire prevention, without success.

Mr. GOLDBERG: We did send out 5,000 fliers for a demonstration day. Unfortunately, we only had 80 in attendance.

KEITH: Goldberg says he'd love to create a halo around his community of South Lake Tahoe, just like they have in Incline Village. But he says Incline has certain advantages. For starters, the community is largely ringed by land owned by one local agency. The ownership is far more complicated in California. And there's also a question of funding. On the Nevada side, there are state grants for tree removal - not in California.

Bruce Turbeville chairs the California Fire Safe Council.

Mr. BRUCE TURBEVILLE (California Fire Safe Council): Why is there always enough money to fight the fire? Because we always fight them and they always go out, but there's never enough money to prevent the fire.

KEITH: Turbeville says a bill to grant money to the Fire Safe Council is now stalled in California's state legislature.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

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