Lake Tahoe residents and tourists must do what they can to prevent and prepare for its next big wildfire, fire chiefs said Wednesday at a forum California State Sen. Ted Gaines organized for the Angora Fire’s seventh anniversary.
An illegal campfire at Seneca Pond sparked the Angora Fire on June 24, 2007. It spread through North Upper Truckee and Tahoe Mountain neighborhoods, burning more than 3,000 acres and 250 structures and plunging the South Shore into smoky chaos.
With drought conditions in all of California, the risk of a major wildfire is as great as ever. Chris Anthony, assistant chief with Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit, said Cal Fire has responded to 2,489 fires that burned 18,242 acres this year in California. That’s a 60 percent increase from the number of fires in the first six months of last year. “So far, acres burned have not been significantly more than what we would typically see, but it’s early,” he said.
Fire chiefs stressed the need for people to have defensible space around homes as California and Nevada law requires. That means fire-resistant building materials and vegetation management to lower the risk of fire spreading to or from homes, particularly in the Wildland Urban Interface. “Defensible space is no guarantee a structure will not be destroyed during a Wildland fire, but it will substantially increase its chance of survival,” Anthony said.
Tim Alameda, chief of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, said he saw the importance of defensible space when his childhood home burned in the Angora Fire.
“Pops was a tree hugger. He had trees growing through the deck, a big deck that went out over the brush. He loved the smell of Manzanita and it was growing up under the deck, and he put all the firewood under there because it was easier to get to,” Alameda said.
Brush and trees led the wildfire right to the home, which was just another fuel load for the fire to devour as it spread. “That changed my perspective,” said Alameda, who was then a division chief with Reno Fire Department. “It’s all about finding ways to change the battleground. That’s frankly what we’re trying to do.”
Local agencies have worked to reduce hazardous fuels on thousands of acres of public land in the Tahoe Basin. Funding for such efforts is at risk as programs that have paid for them sunset, said Joanne Marchetta, director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
“One of today’s core focuses at TRPA and our partnership with the fire protection districts is on and must be on finding additional funding to do that fuels treatment work because there are so many public acres in the basin,” Marchetta said. “We are actively engaged in legislative issues like the water bond to see if we can find dollars for protection. We’re also working on strategies at the federal level, like the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, and for California cap and trade dollars.”
Emphasis is also being put on education and awareness. North Tahoe Fire Protection District and Cal Fire have “Ready, Set, Go” campaigns encouraging people to have evacuation plans.
Alameda said he has been on “pins and needles” as tens of thousands of tourists travel to Lake Tahoe this Fourth of July. He spoke with a Bay Area couple on the beach two weeks ago. When he told them there was a red flag warning in place and asked if they knew what that meant, they replied, “Everybody knows that. It means it’s so windy you can’t put a boat on the lake.”
“After that we said, ‘We got a problem,’” Alameda said. “So we are going back to pushing that basic (red flag) message about wind and relative humidity and the opportunity for fire to do things we cannot control.”
North Tahoe Fire Protection District had 42 fires last year in its 31-square-mile territory. “I’d bet we have close to 100 fires in the basin this year. And if we keep on having these fires it’s like throwing darts at the board. Sooner or later one hits the bull’s eye,” Alameda said.
North Tahoe’s last vegetation fire was five days ago. A Kings Beach resident barbecuing put coals near the base of a cedar tree and wooden shed. Neighbors later reported shed fully engulfed and the cedar tree starting to go up in flames. “It gets so frustrating,” Alameda said. “We’re having fires up here. A lot of them are human caused and folks just aren’t thinking.”
The U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has treated about 5,000 acres with fuel reduction projects over the last two years and the need for that work will never end, Fire Management Officer Kit Bailey said. “It’s kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start at one end, work to the other, then start all over again.”
A strong focus needs to be stopping human-caused fires. Bailey said most fires in the Tahoe Basin are caused by careless behavior, including the Angora Fire on June 24, 2007 and the Gondola Fire on July 3, 2002.
“With the Gondola Fire, we had just implemented our fire restrictions on July 1 and that was caused by a cigarette. That’s how dry conditions were and we’re kind of in that mode again,” Bailey said. “Heightened vigilance is important for all community members. Do not hesitate to call and let us know when we have some sort of issue or violation occurring.”