Fire season seems to be ahead of schedule | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Fire season seems to be ahead of schedule

Adam Jensen

Regional wildfire forecasters have predicted average to slightly above average activity during the 2008 fire season, but early season ignitions in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin already have kept South Shore firefighters on alert.

At about 6:30 p.m. May 9, a brush fire near Winnemucca Avenue in South Lake Tahoe burned about a half-acre before firefighters extinguished it.

Acting Division Chief Greg Gstettenbauer called it the first significant wildfire of the season for the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department.

“You usually don’t expect that this time of year,” Gstettenbauer said.

Two wildfires in the past month in Nevada, as well as four wildland fires on the west slope of the Sierra within the past week, are among the wildfires monitored closely by basin fire chiefs.

Two small brush fires also broke out in the Carson Valley on Tuesday.

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“Needless to say, we’re all concerned,” said South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti. “We’re all at heightened state of awareness.”

Lake Valley Fire Protection District doesn’t typically assemble as part of a strike team until late June or July, said Lake Valley Fire Chief Jeff Michael.

But at the end of April, a crew from the district joined a basin strike team and traveled south of Reno to battle one of the Nevada wildfires – a sagebrush and grass fire that eventually consumed 962 acres.

“We’re actually looking like we’re two months ahead of schedule,” Michael said Tuesday. “In other words, we weren’t this dry until July last year.”

A lack of moisture in recent months and lots of dry winds have been “unsettling” to the fire chief.

“We had a pretty good snowfall, but it was all gone by early to mid-April in the basin here,” Michael said. “We’ve had no considerable moisture recently, so everything dried out.”

Fire risk for Northern California is in the “normal” range, according to a preliminary 2008 California Fire Season Outlook from the Northern California Geographic Area Coordination Center.

But the outlook in “many areas” of Northern California “could favor the upper end of that normal range,” according to the outlook.

And the Lake Tahoe Basin is one of the those areas, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman.

“Overall, throughout the region near the Tahoe Basin, we’re at about that normal range,” Norman said. “However, within that normal range, we are at the upper end.”

Ignitions similar in size to the one near Winnemucca Avenue are common in the basin, according to Norman, who said during the past 30 years, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has averaged more than 70 wildfires per year.

About 90 percent of those wildfires are contained before they grow larger than one acre in size, Norman said.

Chief Michael encouraged homeowners to implement defensible space on their property as a way to slow the spread of wildfires, saying it is a “key” feature to help firefighters protect a home.

For those living within the jurisdiction of one of the basin’s fire protection districts, rebates are available for homeowners to implement defensible space.

Defensible-space rebates, funded by Round 8 of the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, are not yet available to those living in the Fallen Leaf Fire Department and South Lake Tahoe Fire Department jurisdictions, Gigliotti said.

The South Lake Tahoe fire chief is hopeful that defensible-space rebates for homeowners living in both departments’ jurisdictions will be available under SNPLMA Round 9.

More than 24,000 fires have burned 1.4 million acres in the United States so far this year, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.

– City Editor Elaine Goodman contributed to this report.