Thursday, July 12, 2007

Angora Fire Sparks Anti-Enviro Pyroganda

The 3,100 acre Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe has been contained and controlled, and is soon to be declared officially “out,” but the firestorm of controversy ignited by that blaze is far from being over.

The wildfire was ignited on June 24th from an illegal campfire located next to a popular undeveloped recreation site. Given the extremely dry fuel conditions in drought-stricken California, and coupled with strong gusting winds, the fire rapidly raced out of control. In the span of a few hours, over 200 homes in the small community of Meyers, California were completely destroyed.

The second day of the fire, two firefighters were burned over when the burnout they ignited suddenly backfired on them during a wind shift, jumped the fireline, and forced a mandatory evacuation of the entire Tallac Village subdivision containing another 300 homes and over 2,000 residents.

Lots of angry, confused local residents and opportunistic, anti-environmentalist politicians were looking to blame somebody for the wildfire disaster, starting with two time-tested but timeworn scapegoats: environmental activists and government regulators.

Less than 24 hours after the Angora Fire started, the bashing of environmentalists began. South Lake Tahoe city councilman, Mike Weber, started it off by blaming the Sierra Club and environmentalists in general for delaying efforts to salvage log dead trees and clear brush from around Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately for Weber, the wildfire burned in an area that had recently been thinned by the U.S. Forest Service; moreover, the agency admitted that not a single fuels reduction project within the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the Eldorado National Forest had been delayed or blocked through appeals or lawsuits in the last ten years.

During a pre-scheduled oversight hearing on July 26th in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss the status of the federal agencies’ wildfire preparedness, Senator Larry Craig did his usual rant against environmentalists. He railed that the Angora Fire disaster was “human-caused due to environmentalists blocking clearcutting.” Craig made the preposterous claim that younger trees in clearcut timber plantations were much more resilient to wildfires than old-growth trees.

On July 3rd, Congressman John Doolittle kept up the anti-enviro bashing during a photo-op tour of the Angora Fire area. Doolittle warned reporters that the Sierra Club is “actually gravely endangering the population” and “severely threatening the environment” around Lake Tahoe by opposing salvage logging and mechanical thinning within riparian areas.

Meanwhile, at a town meeting held on June 25th in the local high school auditorium which barely escaped the flames itself, an angry crowd of local residents was bashing the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) for its restrictions on tree cutting and other vegetation removal within the Lake Tahoe basin. The media reported charges from one local resident that the TRPA actually banned residents from raking dead pine needles off of their lawns, and his house was spared from fire destruction only because he had illegally raked his yard.

The TRPA was created by an act of Congress in 1969 in order to regulate development around Lake Tahoe, and established regulations on vegetation removal in order to protect water quality and keep sediment from running into Lake Tahoe and further degrading its world-famous deep blue color. The TRPA responded to criticism from local residents by clarifying that there were no restrictions against homeowners cutting dead trees of any size or age, and no permits were needed to cut live trees under six inches. The TRPA does require homeowners to get permits for cutting big, old trees in order to prevent some residents from cutting down large trees simply to improve their private views of the lake. The agency has redoubled its educational efforts on the TRPA website to facilitate residents' efforts to create defensible space and live with fire while still protecting forest cover and water quality to keep Lake Tahoe blue.

The TRPA has long been a target for ire by local residents and land managers irked by the restrictions placed on their autonomy to do whatever they want to vegetation on private or public land. Interestingly, just a couple days into the wildfire, a commercial website was launched that sold “Thank You Firefighters” T-shirts, and buttons with the TRPA covered by the circle-and-slash symbol. This is a relatively petty but revealing example of how quickly opportunistic private and corporate economic interests can roll out prefabricated anti-environmentalist, anti-regulatory propaganda during wildfire disasters.

The scapegoating of environmentalists or regulations for “causing” wildfire disasters through obstructionism of so-called hazardous fuels reduction and forest restoration projects is a time-tested public relations strategy invented by corporate logging interests and their political allies. It had huge play in the press during the 2000, 2002, and 2003 wildfire seasons, and was a major factor behind Congress passing the Bush Administration’s misnamed “Healthy Forests Restoration Act.” As investigators sift through the ashes of the Angora Fire and determine the actual fire behavior and fire effects of that wildfire, it is still uncertain at this time whether or not journalists and the Democratic-led Congress will fall for this anti-enviro “pyroganda” again.

--Lookout Lex

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