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Autumn Hills serves as lesson learned

Rob Bhatt

One of the legacies of the Autumn Hills Fire may turn out to be its ability to turn awareness about the dangers of wildland fire into action.

In the year since the blaze came close to hundreds of homes at the top of Kingsbury Grade, many residents who escaped catastrophe have taken steps to protect themselves against similar, future threats.

The Ridge Tahoe, for instance, spent $200,000 to clear defensible space around its buildings, which overlooked the Autumn Hills blaze one year ago.



The Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District spent about a week last month felling trees to create a shaded fuel break between Kahle Park and homes on Meadow Lane.

And general improvement districts along the East Shore have consulted with the fire district and forestry officials to devise defensible space plans around their neighborhoods.



Bruce VanCleemput, assistant chief for Tahoe-Douglas, believes the proximity of Autumn Hills to the district helped get a lot of area residents to make defensible space a priority.

But he and others agree that much more needs to be done.

“It’s a slow process,” VanCleemput said. “It’s kind of like eating an elephant. When you’re looking at such a large-scale issue, it’s something you have to keep eating away at.”

It took decades for the Tahoe Basin’s 208,000 acres of forest to evolve into the tinderbox it has become, and few expect the problems to be solved soon.

It was not until about 1990 that forestry experts recognized an urgency to remove fuels from an overstocked forest of dead and dying trees.

This recognition helped lead to the formation in 1995 of the Tahoe Re-Green Project, a consortium of local, state and federal forest management and fire protection agencies around the basin.

Funded by state and federal grants, Re-Green participants have organized projects to remove dead trees and brush from publicly owned lots adjacent to developed neighborhoods. The consortium also mounted an informational campaign credited for helping hundreds of property owners identify and remove fire hazards from their land in urban/wildland interface areas.

In the wake of the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, the need for defensible space has gained increased acceptance by property owners, government regulators and even developers. Fire protection officials generally encourage a 30- to 100-foot perimeter, depending on slopes and other factors, containing no combustible vegetation around structures.

Re-Green is credited for reducing threats to developed property in the event of a wildland blaze, but the potential for damage from a catastrophic fire goes beyond homes.

Experts agree that the type of erosion that would accompany the denuding of forests from a significant wildland fire would likely result in irreparable harm to Lake Tahoe’s water quality and ecology.

The potential threat of such a fire became apparent as the drought of the late 1980s progressed, said John Swanson, forest fire and vegetation management staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

The unnatural evolution of the region’s forests – dating back to Comstock era clear-cutting – left them susceptible to the bark beetle infestation that accompanied the drought of the late 1980s. Nearly one-third of the trees in area forests were killed.

For most of this decade, Forest Service policy has called for removal of slash from the forest floor. Salvage timber harvests, criticized by some, have also helped thin fuel loads.

Even critics of salvage logging, like the League to Save Lake Tahoe, agree on the need for some forest thinning, said Jeff Cutler, the League’s assistant executive director. However, they do not think timber sales do enough to remove existing fuel loads or enough to protect ecologically sensitive areas.

Foresters do not expect to be able to do anything to reduce fuel loads on more than half of the area’s forests, due to the sensitivity of the land or lack of access to some areas, Swanson said.

He estimates the Forest Service and collaborating agencies have reduced fuel loads to reasonable levels on about 11,000 acres of land through slash removal and logging since the decade began.

“It’s an impressive dent,” Swanson added. “I’d estimate that we’re about a quarter of the way done, considering what we can and will do.”

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