Experts: Tough fire season on the horizon |

Experts: Tough fire season on the horizon

Susan Wood
Graphic provided Historic fire pattern

With possibly one of California’s worst seasons on the horizon, fire officials around Lake Tahoe are bracing for the inevitable.

The basin will burn – at some point or another. It’s all a matter of fuel for the fire.

“What should alarm you is the vast majority of Tahoe residents who live in this pale area. It has all the ingredients of a wildfire,” said Ed Smith, a University of Nevada, Reno, natural resources specialist. He used a graph illustrating historic fire occurrences during Tuesday’s South Lake Tahoe City Council meeting. As indicated, it shows the lighter area as the zone in the basin that historically burns more frequently.

Tahoe fire officials have collected data to develop a fire community plan by August.

For the bulk of the population here, fire burned every five to 18 years prior to European settlement. These low-intensity fires reduced the amount of brush that creates more severe fires.

But since settlement and the absence of low-intensity fires, some areas haven’t burned in 130 years. Debris that serves as kindling can set a home on fire in a matter of minutes.

Residents may be surprised by the extent a fire can reach them, Smith emphasized.

First, flames can contact the structures. Second, radiated heat may blow out the windows, allowing internal combustion. But flying embers are the most common reason residents and structures are in danger.

“They loft into the atmosphere and just come raining down,” Smith said. “Because of this, every resident in South Lake Tahoe needs to be concerned about wildfire.”

Weather, topography and fuel affect fire danger. Only the latter can be averted.

Burning embers can catch pine needles in the rain gutters, which may ignite the roof. They need to be picked up within 5 feet from the house.

“The most vulnerable part of the house is the roof,” Smith said. “Knock down needles – including those in the gutters.”

Smith advised homeowners replace wood-shake roofs with other materials like composition shingles.

He also recommended homeowners ensure vents and chimneys are screened, as well as clear out debris from under their decks.

“Heat can be trapped underneath,” he said.

There’s another fire hazard that exists at many households – firewood stacked next to a structure.

“This is a tough one for people, but firewood stacks are a bad idea,” he said.

Dense trees pose a significant wildfire threat. In this case, thinning is recommended. But as a reminder, those larger than 6 inches in diameter require a Tahoe Regional Planning Agency permit.

Smith recommended homeowners remove dead vegetation and debris 100 feet from the house to create a defensible space. If the structure sits on a 40 percent slope or more, the distance doubles.

“If you can’t do anything else, do this,” Smith said. “Pine trees create a tremendous amount of heat.”

The dead vegetation can create a ladder effect that burns up to the tree canopies, the type of blazes firefighters want to prevent.

And to avoid confusion during an emergency, homeowners need to make sure firefighters have access.

South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Mike Chandler, who’s working with other fire agencies on the strategic plan, warned the narrow nature of Fallen Leaf Lake Road may make evacuation difficult as firefighters try to get to a fire in that area.

With all the ways to reduce the danger, the biggest impediment will be people’s attitudes about taking action, Chandler told the council.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 541-3880 or via e-mail at

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