Angora fire brought Tahoe unprecedented destruction | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Angora fire brought Tahoe unprecedented destruction

Patrick McCartney

The Angora fire was the most destructive wildfire at Lake Tahoe since Americans settled the basin in the mid-19th century.

That’s the conclusion of forestry officials and a local historian, who say that the clear-cutting of the Comstock era, followed by a century of fire suppression, set the stage for a fire that since Sunday had torched 3,100 acres of forest and destroyed more than 250 homes and businesses.

“Ultimately, this will go down as the most damaging and catastrophic fire in the basin since it was settled,” said Mark McLaughlin of Carnelian Bay, a historian specializing in Sierra Nevada weather.

Larger fires have occurred near the basin. In 2001, for example, the Martis fire burned more than 14,500 acres in the Tahoe and Humboldt-Toiyabe national forests.

In recent years, the largest fire within the basin was the 672-acre Gondola fire in 2002, when a careless smoker ignited a fire beneath the Heavenly Mountain Resort gondola. Just 2,245 acres of forest were consumed by fire in the Tahoe Basin over a three-decade period through 2003, according to a Tribune special report in 2004.

On Wednesday, California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said the Angora fire had caused an estimated $150 million damage so far.

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Forestry professionals aware of fire history studies in the basin agree with the historian. The Angora fire is a unique event in the basin’s recent history, said public affairs specialist Rex Norman of the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

“Probably the last time we had a multi-thousand-acre fire in the Tahoe Basin was 90 to 100 years ago as far as I’m aware,” Norman said on Thursday.

In pre-settlement days, fire regularly swept the forests of the Sierra Nevada, eliminating ground fuel and small trees, and creating an open forest where pioneers could gallop a horse. Summers were punctuated by low-intensity fires that kept fir trees out of the basin’s lower elevations.

The bulk of the basin’s pine forest was stripped in the late 19th century to supply timber for the mines of the Comstock Lode and cordwood for the railroad steam engines that serviced the mines. As the trees grew back, American settlers in the basin regarded wildfires as an adversary to be stopped at any cost.

“Historically over thousands of years, fire reached the Tahoe forest every five to 20 years, but the natural fire cycle didn’t cause a disaster,” Norman said. “As (Americans) came in, they interrupted that cycle. They demanded fire suppression, and we gave it to them.”

Since then, the basin forest has grown back without the beneficial effects of regular fires. Dog-hair stands of fir and pine are “orders of magnitude more dense” than the pre-settlement Tahoe forest, said Shane Romsos, program manager of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s science monitoring and evaluation program.

The result, Romsos said, is a risk of devastating fire regardless of the time of year or human efforts to prevent it.

“Given the right conditions, it can carry a fire regardless of forest treatment,” Romsos said.

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