TRPA Announces Game-Changing Policy to Reduce
Threats and Impacts of Catastrophic Wildfires in Lake Tahoe Basin

Mechanical Equipment + Defensible Space

Fighting the dangerous, destructive and wind-driven Caldor Fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin in 2021 was a story about the success of what is known as “defensible space.” The existence of defensible space in time for the 2021 Caldor Fire resulted from forward-thinking policies put in place by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) after the devastating 2007 Agora wildfire that occurred in the same area. The defensible space recommendation was developed by the California Nevada Emergency Fire Commission established shortly after the 2007 Angora Fire to create a set of recommendations for TRPA to consider that would reduce the risk of wildfire to the Lake Tahoe Basin. As part of its ongoing mandate to implement environmental protection and restoration programs for the Lake Tahoe Basin, on February 23, 2022, TRPA announced the adoption of another game-changing recommendation made by the California Nevada Emergency Fire Commission to expand the use of mechanical equipment for forest thinning projects on steep slopes.

People Making a Difference

The story about both defensible space and the mechanical equipment policy is also a story about the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency that helped make it happen, and people, like McDonald Carano Senior Counsel A.J. “Bud” Hicks, who dedicate decades of time, energy, and effort to help develop ideas, create solutions, and implement change. In addition to his current service as the only Presidentially appointed member to the Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Bud also serves on TRPA’s Forest Health and Wildfire Committee (Chair) and was a member of the first-of-its-kind bi-state California Nevada Emergency Fire Commission formed by the Governors of California and Nevada to study the 2007 Angora Fire. The Commission developed 90 recommendations for TRPA to consider for reducing the risk of wildfire in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Many recommendations also serve as policy models and planning guidelines for communities and regions across the U.S. that face fire risks and hazards.

Hand Crews vs. Mechanical Equipment

According to the TRPA Governing Board’s February 23 announcement, the approved policy change adds 61,000 acres where ground-based mechanical equipment can be used to clear and remove forest fire fuel sources. Prior to the change, work on slopes with more than 30% gradient was limited to difficult, slower, and resource intensive hand crews that relied on hand-thinning, pile burning, and aerial logging. TRPA’s new policy opens an additional 61,000 acres with steeper slopes of 30% – 50% gradient to more effective and efficient ground-based mechanical equipment thinning treatments. In addition to steeper slopes burning faster and with greater intensity, 25% of the 61,000 acres are located in threat zones near homes and communities. The change will increase the pace and scale of forestry land management to help reduce the threat and impacts of catastrophic wildfire and better protect local communities and the environment from wildfires.

Opposition to Recommendations

Bud Hicks served on the California Nevada Emergency Fire Commission when it developed the mechanical equipment recommendation on steeper slopes and related recommendations to ease up environmental prohibitions limiting the use of such equipment in stream environment zones, but he explains that at the time the recommendations were developed “they were opposed by several conservation groups because the available technology and associated mechanical equipment was too environmentally destructive at these high levels of steepness and in sensitive stream environment zones.” Reflecting this concern, the recommendations included that the limitations should be removed when developments in technology would allow use of such fuels removal equipment in stream environment zones and on steep slope projects. After time had passed and prompted by numerous close calls after various fires struck the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, another outgrowth of the 2007 Bi-State Fire Commission’s Report, and TRPA’s Forest Health and Wildfire Committee along with other interested individuals and organizations, convinced TRPA to re-open the discussion about the need to modify the prior gradient limitations and limitations relating to similar fuels clearance work in stream environment zones.

Urgent Adoption Process

The TRPA Board and staff took quick action to adopt the recommendations. The process included multiple public hearings and testimony from experts, as well as requiring that the recommendation be thoroughly vetted and reviewed by environmental scientists to assure that the technology available today does not pose any significant environmental impacts. The use of mechanical equipment on steep slopes used to create significant impacts to soil and the watershed, as well as issues relating to protecting water quality from potential soil erosion. However, as noted in TRPA’s press release, research conducted in partnership with USFS Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station and the University of Idaho now shows that new equipment is lighter, more efficient and more effective, and the new policy would also increase forest and ecosystem resilience to insects, disease, and climate change. Conservations groups, including the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the California Conservancy, endorsed approval of the recommendation.

What It Means
“This is a game changer for fuels reduction in the basin. Hilly terrain is a significant portion of the Tahoe Basin and with the right kind of equipment, we can do quality fuel reduction work and protect the environment at the same time,” said Chief Scott Lindgren of Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District. As TRPA Executive Director Joanne S. Marchetta explained, “TRPA is committed to advancing science-based practices that protect the lake and bolster our resilience to ever-growing wildfire threats, especially given the need for fuels reduction work in untreated areas narrowly missed by the Caldor Fire.” And as Bud Hicks points out, “The Caldor fire also woke up everybody to the need for these policy changes.”


About McDonald Carano

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