Facing the same abnormally dry weather as the rest of California, U.S. Forest Service fire crews in the Lake Tahoe Basin are taking extra precautions with their prescribed burns this winter.
Hikers and campers also are being asked to exercise caution, after abandoned and improperly extinguished campfires sparked two small wildfires in the Mount Rose Wilderness north of Incline Village last weekend.
“People need to be aware when they are out in these conditions, and they need to treat these conditions like we’re in July. It’s that dry out,” said Mark Regan, assistant fire marshal for North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.
The fire district helped respond to the Mount Rose Wilderness fires and is under burning restrictions for homeowners because of the dry conditions.
“We’re taking it day by day, but we won’t be allowing burning here until we get some moisture,” Regan said.
Forest Service fire crews have been treating all of their prescribed burns this January as if it’s fire season. That means extra staff on site and staffing a fire engine each day with more crews and equipment ready to go if needed.
“We’re doing (burns) on a very small scale, very surgical in style, and we’re very specific about how we mop things up at the end of the shift,” said Kit Bailey, fire management officer for Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
“Burns are out at the end of the day and we check them periodically for the next couple days. We just have to temper it. It’s far from a normal winter as we all know.”
Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has burned about 350 acres since October as part of its habitat restoration and hazardous fuels reduction efforts, Bailey said.
Much of that prescribed fire has been focused around Luther Pass Campground and Tahoe City. Burns in those areas will continue this week if precipitation hits the Lake Tahoe Basin as forecast. Prescribed fires may also be started in the Lower Kingsbury Grade area.
With dry conditions statewide, LTBMU fire crews have been called out to help with the 1,900-acre Colby Fire in Angeles National Forest and the 860-acre Campbell Fire in Lassen National Forest.
An illegal campfire is believed to have started the wildfire in Angeles National Forest. Three men have been arrested and may face criminal charges for the fire, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Monday, a small wildfire scorched about 10 acres of underbrush in a popular recreation area in Tahoe National Forest. A campfire is also the suspected cause of that wildfire, according to initial reports.
Farther south, the Soda Fire has burned more than 1,100 acres in the Golden Trout Wilderness in Sequoia National Forest. Its cause remains undetermined.
Cal Fire has responded to almost 400 wildfires that have charred more than 1,000 acres this month. Last year Cal Fire did not respond to any fires in the same timeframe, spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
The agency is staffing 25 additional fire engines across Northern California this week because grass, brush and even timber are critically dry.
“Right now we are seeing conditions we would typically see in August,” Berlant said.
Precipitation forecast for Lake Tahoe this week hopefully will bring some needed moisture, but it might not be enough to affect fire conditions for long. Longer-term forecasts are predicting a February with above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation, Berlant and Bailey said.
As of Tuesday, snow water content was 12 percent of normal in the Central Sierra and 5 percent of normal in the Northern Sierra, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
“Basically we’re in summer conditions as far as fuels and dryness, and if people are out in the woods they need to be extra vigilant with fire,” Bailey said.
The small wildfires in Mount Rose Wilderness this weekend burned less than an acre combined. But at about 8,500 feet, there was no snow on the ground for fire crews to use to mop the fires up.
“That’s highly abnormal for this time of year in Tahoe,” Bailey said.
“We definitely are on track to be the third driest year on record, if not the driest year on record if things don’t change. That will translate into some pretty serious fire conditions this season if we don’t see some relief,” Bailey said.
“Just because it’s January, that really doesn’t mean anything to the conditions or the fuels. They are very receptive. A little bit of wind with a spark in the wrong place and we’ll have a significant fire.”
— The Union, a sister paper of Tahoe Daily Tribune, contributed to this report.