SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — California's top water quality enforcer at Lake Tahoe, the sapphire of the Sierra, said the recent wildfire that ripped through hundreds of south shore homes should "re-open the book" on environmental rules that call for preserving the lake's clarity above all else.
For decades, "Keep Tahoe Blue" has defined the overarching mission for this region that Congress declared a "national treasure."
SUVs, hybrids and skateboards alike sport the motto on decals. Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore embraced the goal at a lakeside summit that raised nearly $1 billion to halt urban runoff into the lake.
But the annihilation from last month's Angora fire has the California official most directly responsible for guarding the holy waters rethinking that priority.
"The biggest tragedy of all of this will be if we don't learn from what happened," said Harold Singer, executive officer of the state Lahontan regional Water Quality Control Board.
"I am willing to open up the book on this. If there is something that tells us there is a better way to protect water quality and still allow fire agencies to reduce the fire threat, we will work with them."
To that end, Singer has already opened discussions with federal and state land managers and the Lake Valley Fire Protection District, which includes the devastated Upper Truckee subdivision at the south end of the lake.
Foremost on their minds are the regulations protecting the 64 "stream environment zones" around the lake. Many of these creeks are cluttered with deadwood and flanked with dense stands of white fir and lodge pole pines.
The stream zones, however, are off limits to conventional logging operations that fire officials say is needed to efficiently reduce fire hazard throughout the heavily forested 500-square mile Tahoe basin.
Heavy disturbance could release large slugs of sediment that streams would funnel into the lake, worsening its clarity. Likewise, heavy equipment could compact the spongy wetlands that naturally absorb and filter storm water runoff.
The lake already is losing about a foot of transparency a year, the result of development disturbing the fragile granite soil and the fallout of air pollutants from traffic ringing the urban playground.
Some fire analysts said Angora Creek became the primary path of the blaze because it is choked with dead wood and because stretches of the corridor run southwest to northeast, the predominant direction of the wind-driven fire.
"I know that with the very strong southwesterly winds that day (June 24) and with the alignment of the creek, all that dead material in there contributed to the intensity of the fire - that and the fact that we had very low relative humidity the previous two days," said Dave Marlow, manager of vegetation, fire and fuels for the Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
"It's why we call the stream zones the wicks to the bigger fire," Marlow said. "The fire will tend to follow that untreated, decadent jackstraw pile of vegetation along streams, and then get up to the forest and cause problems. That's partially what happened in the case of the Angora fire."
Singer said the devastation has prompted him to investigate whether the streams could sustain more disturbance for the sake of better fire protection.
"I have called fire officials and they've said that (Angora) stream zone was the primary path of the fire. So it's a problem that we need to deal with. I want to learn from this and see if there is something I am doing that is hampering their fire prevention efforts."
If Singer sounds as though he is taking this personally, it's because he has been publicly blamed for the fire.
In the midst of the blaze, Tim Leslie, who represented the California side of the lake for 15 years as a state senator and then assemblyman, lambasted Singer as an unyielding obstacle to reducing the fire danger at Tahoe.
"Harold Singer ... is the bureaucrat of bureaucrats," Leslie said in a June 27 phone interview with KFBK radio talk show host Tom Sullivan.
"You should have him on the show, but when he comes on, he'll wow everybody, he'll convince everybody he did everything humanly possible, blah, blah, blah. But I tell you that's what it is - blah, blah. He's the one who says, `Oh, you can't walk on the ground, you can't cut out those dead trees.'"
Had Sullivan sought out Singer for response, he probably would have had a hard time reaching him. Singer said he was out all that day house hunting with his wife and two children. Their home of 19 years was one of the 254 houses completely destroyed in the fire.
They had about 20 minutes to pack and flee.
Singer, 58, dashed for the family documents and computer. His wife, Pam, grabbed the photo albums. Their daughter, Regan, 7, clung to "Uni," her stuffed unicorn, while their son, Garrett ran for the Lionel train set he got for Christmas.
"It's a Santa Fe Chief," Singer said, tears welling. He said, `Dad, get your Lionel train, too.'"
As Singer pulled a jam-packed Ford Expedition away from their home, Garrett said, "Dad, Stop!" The 13-year-old ran back and hugged the house as far as his arms could stretch. The fire left nothing but memories to embrace upon their return six days later.
Leslie said he didn't know Singer was homeless when he skewered him on air.
"I feel sorry for anyone who lost their home. But that has nothing to do with any of my opinions related to the fire danger around here," Leslie said in a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee.
Leslie called Singer's willingness to reconsider the streamside logging restrictions "a pleasant change of attitude" - but too little, too late.
"He should have realized the danger a long time ago," Leslie said. "Instead of looking for ways to stop thinning, he should have been looking for ways to get around these bureaucratic obstacles."
Singer and other environment officials in the Tahoe basin actually have been keen to the fire danger for years.
In 1994, the politically appointed members of the Lahontan water board - whose region runs the length of the eastern side of the Sierra - approved Singer's recommendation to allow greater use of controlled burns in stream zones and permit heavy logging in these areas under certain conditions. For example, big trucks and trackers can enter wetlands over the snow in meadows that already have roads.
The following year Singer won an exemption from the state forestry board that made it easier to remove dead and dying trees on the California side of the basin.
Two years ago, with the fire danger reaching the critical stage, the forestry board adopted an "emergency order," exclusively for Tahoe, allowing live green trees to be removed along streams without the normally required environmental impact report - again at Singer's urging.
And last year, the Lahontan water board secured $200,000 in state money with a 50 percent match from up to 80 property owners to pay for the removal of trees and underbrush within 30 feet of homes in the Lake Valley Fire Protection District.
Still, most of the fire clearing along Tahoe streams has been done on foot with chainsaws, with crews carrying out wood by hand, the Forest Service's Marlow said.
Singer said he is open to loggers entering sensitive areas with big rigs that cut costs and time so long as they can show the soil disturbance will be minimal.
The Forest Service is taking up Singer's offer in a fire-prone area threatening the Lake Tahoe Community College, on the south shore.
"We are really hoping that we can really be able to do this work without any negative effect on the environment," Marlow said.