TAHOE/TRUCKEE — Starting at the Donner Pass Road/Interstate 80 interchange, Bob Belden of the Truckee Fire Protection District turned onto Richards Boulevard and began switchbacking up through a residential neighborhood perched on the south-facing slope of the hill. He stopped in front of a house.“Fire likes to run uphill. Down below we have all the crazy things that come off the freeway — cigarette butts, hot brakes, whatever,” he said. “If a fire starts down there, chunks of burning embers are going to be thrown out in front. They'll land on the roof, in the gutters, in all that brush in the yard. Look — there's firewood stacked on the deck. That's what burns down houses.”He pointed out several other homes — some better prepared than others — and he talked about the overgrowth of underbrush; the natural state of the Sierra Nevada forest; and the 19th century logging operations that changed the landscape around Truckee and Lake Tahoe. “People around here are good at preparing for winter, but we are not good at preparing for fire season,” Belden said. “This forest is supposed to burn; it wants to burn. And it's been my experience that Mother Nature always wins.”Soon he made his way to Northwoods Boulevard and wound his way up into Tahoe Donner. He stopped at a point where the scar left by the Donner Ridge fire, Truckee's largest-ever wildland blaze, can still be seen stretching across the valley, over a gap and down into Nevada.The fire was started mid-August 1960 by construction crews building Interstate 80. By the time the 44,800-acre blaze was extinguished, it burned a swath 20 miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest point.Belden continued driving until he reached a point on Donner Ridge between the Tahoe Donner subdivision and the interstate below where very little understory was growing. Widely spaced clumps of bushes and larger trees dominated the landscape.“This is how the forest is supposed to look,” he said.“I was standing right here,” he then recalled about a recent blaze, “when a fire came up off the freeway. There were 50-foot high flames throwing embers, and when it got to this point, the fire laid down. It just stopped.”
In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tahoe Donner and Glenshire homeowners associations have been aggressively treating the forests around the town of Truckee, said Town Manager Tony Lashbrook; Calfire also manages fuels to a lesser extent.“Four years ago, a tree trimming crew dropped a high voltage power line on I-80, and the fire ripped up the hill toward Tahoe Donner,” Lashbrook recalled. “It was on one of Tahoe Donner's fuel managed areas that they stopped it.”A treated forest is pruned, thinned and in some cases burned, Belden said, to create a forest with very little understory (the area of a forest that grows at the lowest height) and widely spaced, mature trees with fire-resistant bark.The forest is managed to closely mimic the natural Sierra Nevada ecosystem, he said, an ecosystem that is able to burn without morphing into the catastrophic wildfires that often devastate previously logged areas or those that have been subjected to many years of ill-advised fire suppression policies.“Absolutely,” said Marty Scheuerman, fire and fuels manager with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District. “Those treated sections are that powerful.”Scheuerman's district is the fire response service for the North Shore, from Tahoma to the California/Nevada state line. Forests that border the district's many communities have been treated, Scheuerman said, from Highway 28 to Carnelian Bay, as well as sections near Tahoma and Ward Creek State Park on the West Shore, and a 26-acre plot near Kings Beach.“We have a huge treatment area near the Kings Run condos that is just beautiful,” he said.But there is much work still to do. Overall, Scheuerman said the protective halo around the North Tahoe Fire Protection District is about 40 percent complete.“We're getting there,” he said, noting that the projects are grant-funded and can be very expensive. For example, the district is planning for a 117-acre buffer zone near Watson Creek in Carnelian Bay. Its price tag — $198,000. Several other factors — such as the angle of a slope being worked, size and weight of the fuels, whether or not materials are crushed or transported away, and how and where the fuels are taken for disposal — also affects the cost of individual projects, said Scheuerman.Over in Incline Village, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District started on its protective ring around the community many years before its California counterpart, said Tia Rancourt, public information officer; the halo is complete and now has entered the maintenance phrase.Treated forests are powerful fire breaks — but, said Linda Ferguson, a U.S. Forest Service fuels manager at the Truckee Ranger District said, they aren't fool-proof. “That's why we rely on homeowners to do their part,” she said.
Fire season is here in Truckee/Tahoe. On the heels of a dry winter, fuels in the region are at moisture levels normally seen in the month of August, Ferguson said. Additionally, a frost kill from last winter has left dead and drying plants on the forest floor, adding even more fuel to any potential wildfire.The dry winter also comes on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the Angora fire, which destroyed 242 residences and 67 commercial structures and scorched 3,100 acres of land in late June 2007 in South Lake Tahoe.Officials are urging visitors and residents to be fire aware this season, and they are asking homeowners to do their part to create defensible space around their homes. Defensible space involves maintaining the natural and landscaped area around a structure to reduce fire danger. Freeing properties of pine cones and needles, and trimming trees of dead branches are common methods.Local residents and part-time homeowners can learn more about appropriate defensible space during Tahoe Wildfire Awareness Week, which begins Saturday and lasts through June 3. Its theme is “Your Home —Your Responsibility,” and the goal is to encourage homeowners and residents to gain the knowledge and skills to prepare their homes and property to survive wildfires and know how to evacuate safely.“With the fifth anniversary of the Angora fire coming up, this is a good opportunity for our community to discuss the importance of wildfire awareness,” said Joanne Marchetta, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.Tahoe Basin fire agencies and partners, including TRPA and the University of California and Nevada Cooperative Extensions, are sponsoring a series of free webinars to help individuals and communities learn how to become more prepared. Each webinar will be from noon to 1 p.m. and will be recorded and archived for later viewing.To learn more about the webinar series and other Lake Tahoe Wildfire Awareness Week events visit www.livingwithfire.info/tahoe.And to further help, civic agencies have set up green waste collection stations to aid homeowners in disposing green waste.For Placer County residents, a free drop-off will be held June 23 from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Tahoe Ski Bowl Way in Homewood, in Tahoe City at the PUD Cross country ski area and at the North Tahoe Public Utilities District parking lot off National Avenue in Tahoe Vista.From June 1-16, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., excluding Sundays, customers with proof of residency in the town of Truckee can bring green waste to the Cabin Creek disposal location.They will also be allowed to use the town's green bag system, disposing up to four bags a week curbside. For further information, call Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal at 530-583-0148.