A fire within

The Angora fire at Lake Tahoe, in which more than 275 buildings including homes were burned, is a tragedy of almost inconceivable proportions. Losing a home, with irreplaceable possessions like photographs and pets, is almost too much for anyone to take. Our thoughts go out to the victims of the maelstrom.

But, once again, we in the editorial department of the Reno News & Review find ourselves urging caution in how the community allows this tragedy to shape future government policy. Just as pro- and anti-gun law proponents leapt at the opportunity to either tighten laws regarding legal gun ownership or remove constraints against carrying guns on college campuses after the Virginia Tech massacre, within hours of this blaze’s ignition at South Lake, e-mail letters began to flow into our inboxes looking to blame the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency for the disaster.

The fact is, even though at press time we don’t know exactly what started the Angora fire, we do know the root cause. The root cause of the Angora fire was centuries of unwise land use in this country. Our country has only been getting a handle on this issue in the past few decades.

A century and a half ago, before the hills around Reno and Lake Tahoe were clear-cut to build the silver mines on the Comstock and the housing for the people who worked them and the support businesses for the people who profited from the mining, forests hereabouts looked different. The native trees were taller, of different species, and not so densely packed. The undergrowth below the trees also had a different nature, grassier and, while subject to burning, it generally did not burn hot or high enough to ignite mature trees or destroy entire forest ranges.

Needless to say, over the intervening years, our county’s forest-management policies changed, generally forbidding clear cutting, but the pendulum went too far to one side, and our forest-management style became “leave these unnatural forests unmanaged, but put out fires as quickly as possible.” It was those sorts of policies, which have since been proven unsustainable, that allowed something like the Angora fire to happen. Experts have been predicting such a blaze at Lake Tahoe for years.

But those policies have evolved in recent years with an eye toward simulating the conditions that existed in the years before European settlers screwed up the ecosystem. In the years before European settlers came on the scene, wildfires burned without constraint, periodically sweeping across the West, burning out the underbrush fuel and destroying the smaller, weaker and dying trees—which made for a grassier, airier forest on the mountain slopes. That type of forest, incidentally, is much friendlier to human habitation because grass fires that don’t reach into densely packed trees’ lower branches are easier to extinguish. But that kind of restoration takes time.

Yes, by all means, let’s look at how forest management policies at the lake may have worsened ecological conditions and exacerbated this fire. But it would be most foolhardy to reactively change laws when new laws and science-based policies haven’t been given chance to take root.