Summer of flames |

Summer of flames

The summer of 2007 will be remembered for its flames. After years of fire experts warning of the danger the unprecedented happened. Fire broke out in South Lake Tahoe, then near Tahoe City and Truckee.

Before the summer turned to fall more than 250 homes had burned to the ground in South Lake Tahoe, five Tahoe City homes had been incinerated, and Truckee’s largest subdivision had been threatened by the flames of a fast-moving fire that broke out along Interstate 80.

Later in the summer, the sky turned an ashen gray from smoke carried in from a Plumas County fire consuming 65,000 acres near Quincy.

The summer will be remembered as one of the most destructive and volatile fire seasons in the area’s history. But it will also leave in its wake an unprecedented attempt to gather agencies together to find a way to reduce fire risk.

Following the Angora Fire on the South Shore, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency voted to pull restrictions on U.S. Forest Service forest thinning projects smaller than 100 acres. And recently, the agency greenlighted eight demands made by fire chiefs from across the Tahoe Basin to loosen regulation on defensible space.

It’s too early to tell how effective efforts to streamline forest thinning in the Tahoe Basin will be and whether those efforts can be carried out before another catastrophic hits the Tahoe area.

Meanwhile, the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission will continue to meet and look at changes to Basin regulations.

But what is clear is that state and federal agencies are facing an overwhelming task that is eating up their budgets – and global warming and Sierra sprawl are not making it any easier.

“We are concerned with the bite fire costs are taking out of our budget,” said Matt Mathes, a Forest Service spokesman. “There’s a tremendous amount of concern about that.”

Nationwide, the Forest Service spends 41 percent of its budget on fire costs – both firefighting and fuels reduction. In California, that number jumps to 50 percent, Mathes said.

In Northern California, 209,000 acres of forest burned this summer. In Southern California, 347,000 acres burned – bringing the state total to 556,000 acres of forest that went up in flames.

Calfire, formerly the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, battled 6,574 fires this season. Calfire’s budget has gone from a range of between $8 million and $57 million in the 1980s, to now regularly topping $100 million. The agency spent a high of $252 million in 2003-2004 fire season.

The acreage itself is not a dramatic concern. As the Forest Service and the National Park System recognize that fire is a natural, and in many ways vital, occurrence, the agencies often leave backcountry fires that do not threaten homes or lives to burn.

But the problem is there are fewer and fewer of those uninhabited places where fire can take its natural course.

“The forests that are the most heavily funded for fuels reduction are the forests where the most homes and lives are at risk,” said Mathes.

2007 Fire facts:

The Angora Fire

• June 24, South Lake Tahoe

• 3,100 acres

• 254 homes destroyed

• caused by campfire

• $13 million to contain (estimated cost to U.S. Forest Service alone)

Washoe Fire

• Aug. 18, Tahoe City

• 15 acres

• 5 homes destroyed

• caused by leaking barbecue grill that ignited on the deck of a home

• $25,000 to contain (estimated cost to Forest Service alone)

Interchange Fire

• Aug. 22, Truckee

• 80 acres

• An estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to contain

• caused by power company contractors who felled a tree onto a power line, which snapped and ignited underbrush

Highway Fire

• May 22, Truckee River Canyon

• 853 acres

• human caused

Calfire firefighting costs since 1980

1979-80 $11.9 million

1980-81 $21.2 million

1981-82 $12.6 million

1982-83 $8.6 million

1983-84 $12.4 million

1984-85 $16.8 million

1985-86 $35.5 million

1986-87 $14.8 million

1987-88 $56.8 million

1988-89 $58 million

1989-90 $39.3 million

1990-91 $70.8 million

1991-92 $22.5 million

1992-93 $85.6 million

1993-94 $65.7 million

1994-95 $69.9 million

1995-96 $60.4 million

1996-97 $107 million

1997-98 $47.7 million

1998-99 $43.8 million

1999-2000 $178.5 million

2000-01 $124 million

2001-02 $162.8 million

2002-03 $135 million

2003-04 $252.3 million

2004-05 $170.1 million

2005-06 $105.3 million (estimate)

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