On Wildfires and Defensible Space

Sorry for the delay in posting this entry. It was written at the end of June in the aftermath of the wildfire in South Lake Tahoe that burned over 250 houses, along with 3000 acres of forest. I thought I’d posted it to the blog, but see I hadn’t. Hope you find it enlightening in one way or another.

Well, things are settling down now. Most of those accessing this via the blog gateway won’t have any idea, but the fact is that I live in South Lake Tahoe and both my house, occupied by wife, and my other house, occupied by me and my ancient dog, Sunny, were evacuated in the face of the recent fire.

Barb’s experience was the most dramatic. She called me about 20 minutes after the fire started to say there was a big fire in the neighborhood and to ask what I wanted to save if she had to evacuate. All I could think of was our firebox. She said to come out and trade my old pick up for the newer, much more valuable, camper van.

I started out that way, going highway 50, which has a good view of the area. Halfway out I called to tell her she should get out of there right away. I was not going to join her, camper van or not. It looked like the only exit route, south of our house, might be threatened, and I’ve never seen a conflagration anything like what was going on north of where Barbara was.

I waited for a while at the junction of the route and safety, but then overheard a fire truck driver ask for directions to the high school. That’s very close to my place, which I’m only renting, but where Sunny was. She’s barely able to get around and I knew it would take twenty minutes to get her into a vehicle, even were she relaxed. Not doing any good where I was, I headed back into town.

To make a very long story short, we all got out okay and, thank God, the next day was dead still, giving the firefighters a chance to save my neighborhood. The fire started very near Barbara’s, but the strong winds were blowing favorably for us and her house and immediate surroundings were unscathed. Hundreds of homes just north of Barb’s (owned jointly with me) were ash within a matter of hours. The fire never breached any other neighborhoods, although, had it been windy on that second day, half of South Lake Tahoe would have almost certainly been lost.

Here’s a letter to the editor I wrote at first opportunity after hearing about all the griping that went on at public hearings while the fire was still going strong.

***

What a difference a week makes. The fire threw everything off schedule further than I’d ever imagined. Luckily for me, that’s been the greatest impact it’s had on my life. So many of my good friends have had their lives turned completely upside down, with devastating effects on both happiness and fortune. My heart goes out to them. At this writing, though, no one appears to have died. Many pets and wild things were lost, of course, and there’s great enough tragedy in that.

As always, I try to find lessons. I’ve yet to attend any of the “public information” meetings that have been held. They were mostly way too premature for me. I was still trying to deal with threats to my property from an active forest fire, and others were going to meetings. Luminaries descended like lice to get in everyone’s way. What’s that all about?

I put the term “public information” in quotes because they were reported mainly as public gripe sessions. I didn’t have time to read the stories in any detail, but it doesn’t surprise me that’s what they were/are like. What ever became of the sense of responsibility people once had?

I know: makes me sound like grampa. Well, I am a grampa, so why shouldn’t I sound like one? And, so what if I do? Maybe we’d all have done a bit better had we listened to the experience of our own grampas.

Time was, we didn’t immediately try to find someone else to blame. Our homes, here in South Lake Tahoe, are in a forest. That’s not someone else’s fault. A lot of them, mine included, don’t have truly defensible space. In some cases, but not that many, the cause of that indefensible space is, at least partly, due to administrative hassles getting approval to cut trees. Those hassles are often as much about money and time as permission. Most often, probably. Certainly so, if you throw in the cost of having a big tree removed by a professional (not a TRPA issue, though).

TRPA (The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency) has long been a whipping boy used by locals to vent exasperation of almost every sort. And they’re a great target, if for no other reason than simply that the rich can always do whatever they want, building-wise, because throwing money at an agency is always the easiest way to get its approval. And if that doesn’t work, throw money at lawyers. The poorer of us homeowners up here resent the hell out of the fact that, to do almost anything in the face of not having enough money to throw at the problem, we often wind up bootlegging it.

That’s a lot easier than fixing the system so there’s not this huge inequality in how it works. But it leaves us frustrated and at risk of getting caught and madder than hell. Yet, those of us who look beyond the borders of our own immediate irritation know that TRPA has been a God-send for our lifestyles. What makes Tahoe a wonderful place to live is that it is not city and it is located in the middle of paradise. That first reason, more than anything else, is directly due to the regulations and influence of TRPA, and the League To Save Lake Tahoe, and environmentalists of all sorts. You might even want to give them some credit for the second reason.

Finger pointing is natural, but extraordinarily unfortunate, for it almost never does anyone any good. And its practice, as exemplified by our litigious society, is debilitating.

The problem isn’t TRPA. If everyone had been willing to live in a little oasis of barren ground in the middle of a forest, which is pretty much what “defensible space” is about, the forest fire wouldn’t have consumed so many houses; almost certainly true. And if we’d have been concerned about it enough to pursue the matter hard enough, TRPA and everyone else would have let us build those little oases.

But we weren’t, and we never will be. We live in a forest because we love the forest. Most of us don’t want oases around our houses. And pretending TRPA stopped us from building them is just rationalizing our own complicity in creating the problem.

So, where’s a lesson in all this? Maybe we should look at the idea of defendable space more realistically. What if we broadened our definition to a place where there would be more than one way of complying with “defensible space” provisions? I think a lot of us who won’t pay in money or time to get permission and professionals to cut trees that are dangerously close to our houses would be willing to do so to install a fire suppression sprinkler system in those same trees. We do, after all, love the houses too.

But then we’d need the political will to enforce these new, more reasonable, rules, for preventing wildfire is not something you can do alone. I.e., we’d need to support some version of the TRPA. But we’d rather blame it, and all those damned environmentalists, wouldn’t we.

Signed me

***

One last philosophical bit that I spared the Tribune’s readership by cutting. (You should be so lucky.)

One small, but I think important, example of how litigation has made us dysfunctional comes to mind originating from reportage of the fire itself. I’ve noticed that the control reports are not using the word “control” in reference to this fire. I’ve lived in forest fire country almost all my life. “Containment” has always meant “we have a line around” a fire. So 20% containment meant there was a fire line around 20% of the perimeter of the fire. “Control” meant the fire was no longer spreading at will. There’s a big difference: a fire spreads at least as often via wind as ground–more, probably–and it tends to spread at will within the containment area. So 20% control is a much stronger statement than 20% containment. “Mopping up” meant the fire was in ember stage and wasn’t offered in % terms: final extinguishment could be expected soon, providing wind and weather and manpower cooperated. “Out” meant out. All out.

Our fire has been reported only as “x% contained” (usually with x in the small teens or less). As the value of x became larger, I asked a fire official I know when this fire was going to get to controlled status and why we weren’t hearing any reports indicating percent controlled. He said the lawyers have decided they can’t report that information because there have been too many cases of people suing because of damages caused when “controlled” burns and/or fires got out of control.

So, throughout this fire, I had no idea how reasonable or unreasonable it was to relax. For me, that meant almost no relaxing. For others–probably exactly the type that let the campfire that started it get away from them in the first place–that means almost no concern once they were allowed back into the previously evacuated areas.

I don’t even know how to speak to this, other than to ask again, “What’s that all about?” I know enough about forest fires to know it’s almost entirely up to the wind so long as it isn’t “out” yet.

Love and Namaste

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