Lake Tahoe residents oppose new homes in path of wildfire danger
Reno Gazette Journal
RENO, Nev. — During her career as a flight attendant, Laura Heneveld had a checklist to remind her what to do in the event of a fire.
“The most important thing on an airplane is fire, whether you are on the ground or whether you are up in the air,” Heneveld said. “I’m very attuned to how quickly fire can take over and how you don’t think clearly.”
Now retired and living in California’s Olympic Valley near Lake Tahoe, Heneveld still keeps a fire checklist.
Only this time it’s to remind her and her husband, emergency room physician Ed Heneveld, what to take if they’re escaping a forest fire.
“Forty years ago, we had a much healthier forest, now we are dealing with an unhealthy forest,” Heneveld said. “I see the potential for a real disaster.”
That’s among the reasons Heneveld and many other Sierra Nevada residents oppose a proposed redevelopment plan for Squaw Valley Resort that would add about 1,500 bedrooms and additional retail and resort amenities to the valley over the next 25 years.
The proposed redevelopment, along with another controversial plan for hundreds of homes near a two-lane highway near Truckee, comes as Californians are already reckoning with the dangers posed by development in fire-prone areas.
Although even the developers acknowledge there are scenarios in which wildfire could burn through faster than people could evacuate, local officials have approved development plans over the objections of environmental groups and hundreds of residents who spoke out against the plans.
Both are being challenged in court, and in one case a judge called the evacuation plan insufficient.
“We are adding people, buildings, we are not adding any more ability to get out of here,” Heneveld said.
The geographic features that make the scenic valley attractive to residents and tourists contribute to her evacuation worries.
The main redevelopment area is approximately two miles west of California Route 89 via the curvy, two-lane Squaw Valley Road.
Most homes in the valley are on the north side of the road and the northern, southern and eastern ends are forested.
In the center, Squaw Valley Creek runs through a meadow, which rises toward the resort and ski area. Exposed-rock terrain towers up to 3,000 feet above the valley floor.
From the ridges, skiers and snowboarders can enjoy views of Lake Tahoe to the east. In 2014 those same ridges would have provided a panoramic view of the King Fire, which started about 35 miles to the southwest near Pollock Pines and burned to within about 8 miles.
Heneveld’s greatest fear is there will be thousands of residents and visitors crammed into the valley when the next fire arrives and their attempts at evacuation will result in gridlock.
“I think it is more the feeling of being trapped that is frightening,” said Heneveld, who recalled the stories of people fleeing the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, seeking refuge in a stream in November 2018.
“I’ve certainly thought of that as a last-ditch effort, getting to the Truckee River,” she said.
And it’s not the only controversial development that would put more traffic on roads in the forested, mountain terrain between Lake Tahoe and Interstate 80.
Another would add several hundred homes and commercial properties near Northstar California Resort.
The proposal, called Martis Valley West, generated similar complaints from people who worry that additional development in hilly terrain with narrow roads and heavy traffic would compromise residents’ ability to evacuate during a fire.
“The biggest issue around here is there just simply is not room to safely build these monster developments,” said Robert Heinz, who lives on Dollar Point near Tahoe City.
Heinz said he and his wife keep a packed bag at the ready in the event of a fire. But they worry their readiness would do them no good if traffic were at a standstill.
“Depending on which way the fire is coming we would probably go in the opposite direction, but so would everybody else,” Heinz said.
Critics say the projects show state and local governments need to pay closer attention to how developments will affect the ability of people to evacuate in the event of a disaster before approving new building.
“We need to have a better way to capture suitable areas to develop in or non-suitable areas that can be taken off the table,” said Alexis Ollar of Mountain Area Preservation, a Truckee, Calif., based group that’s suing to block the Martis Valley development.
Backers of the developments accuse critics of weaponizing deadly California fire disasters to stoke anti-development fears even as developers take steps to ensure their projects are suitable for fire-prone areas.
“We have to learn to adapt and not live in fear,” said Ron Cohen, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. “I don’t believe in withdrawing from the mountains because of fire.”
Ed Morgan, chief operating officer of Mountainside Builders, the developer behind Martis Valley West, said the project is already scaled down from the original proposal by about 1,300 units and shifted entirely to the west side of California Route 267 near Northstar, leaving more open space to the east.
“I understand there are some groups that want nothing, but this is private property that has certain rights to develop with county plans,” Morgan said. “You don’t just walk away from that.”
Both projects are in areas scientists and land managers call the wildland urban interface, or WUI.
And while WUI areas don’t always correlate with greater risk of fire destruction, they do in California. That’s because the state, which is the most populous in the U.S., has vast amounts of mountainside land with overgrown vegetation that dries in the summer close to densely populated communities.
In California, 75 percent of buildings destroyed by wildfire are in WUI zones, according to recent research. In states such as Washington, which is wetter, and Montana, which is sparsely populated, that figure is less than 25 percent.
“There are a lot of buildings and there is a lot of woodland vegetation and they are close to each other, and there is a lot of fire,” said Anu Kramer, a wildfire scientist at the Silvis Lab at the University of Wisconsin who conducted the research. “When those things come together that is when you are going to see a lot of destruction.”
Jennifer Montgomery, director of the California Governor’s Forest Management Task Force and a former Placer County supervisor, said the confluence of development, fire-prone terrain and congested infrastructure is a statewide problem.
“It is not a question that is unique to Tahoe, it is a question that is broadly applied to the state of California,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery was the lone vote on the Placer County Board of Supervisors against the Squaw Valley plan, although she said her concerns were more about congestion in general than fire evacuation specifically.
“We need to have a significantly more robust public system that moves people in and out and stops the insane reliance we have on single-family passenger vehicles,” Montgomery said.
NEW HOMES, BUSINESSES AND A WATERPARK
Although the two proposals are from unrelated developers, their development timelines and proximities to busy highways between North Lake Tahoe and Interstate 80 raise similar concerns among critics, particularly when it comes to fire safety.
Combined, they would add about 1,500 housing units and more than 330,000 square feet of commercial space.
The Squaw Valley proposal calls for the redevelopment of about 93 acres at the base of Squaw Valley Resort.
Located at the western end of Olympic Valley, the resort was the home of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games and, more recently, is known for attracting elite skiers and snowboarders.
The resort’s 25-year redevelopment plan calls for an additional 850 units supporting nearly 1,500 bedrooms, nearly 300,000 square feet of commercial space that would include restaurants, retail and a 90,000-square-foot Mountain Adventure Camp with a waterpark and other year-round amenities capable of hosting 1,200 guests.
If development plans come to fruition, additions to the resort plus growth in the surrounding community could increase the number of people in the valley from about 5,800 to nearly 9,500, at full capacity. That’s in addition to day visitation, which peaks in the winter during ski season when fire danger is low. Although amenities in the proposed development are designed to attract visitors throughout the year.
According to the plan, both new and existing visitors and residents would access homes and the resort via Squaw Valley Road, which connects to California Route 89 at the east end of the valley.
The proposed Martis Valley West development is located along California Route 267 about 7 miles northeast of Olympic Valley as the crow flies and about 20 miles by road.
Currently undeveloped, the proposal calls for up to 760 homes and 34,500 square feet of commercial space.
Once built, people driving out of the development could choose to take 267 north to Truckee or south over Brockway Summit to King’s Beach.
Although the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the plans, both development proposals remain tangled in litigation from environmental groups.
In the case of Squaw Valley, Placer County Superior Court Judge Michael Jones rejected arguments by the environmental group Sierra Watch that the county performed inadequate analysis of the project and violated California’s Brown Act, which covers the public’s right to participate in government decisions.
Sierra Watch is appealing the rulings.
In the case of Martis Valley, Jones ruled in favor of environmental groups on the issue of fire evacuation, while rejecting their other arguments against the plan.
“The (environmental impact report) identifies the area as a very high fire hazard severity zone but then fails to present a sufficient analysis to address the impacts of the Project on emergency procedures,” Jones wrote.
Both the environmental groups and the developer are appealing aspects of Jones’ Martis Valley ruling.
‘RECIPE FOR CATASTROPHIC DISASTER’
Environmental groups, and some residents, accuse both projects’ developers and the county of overlooking or downplaying the impact new development could have on people’s ability to evacuate during a wildfire.
In Squaw Valley, developers and officials acknowledge it’s possible a fire could approach faster than thousands of people could drive out on Squaw Valley Road. Or, depending on the direction, a fire could block access to the road.
In those scenarios, officials and the developer say residents and visitors would need to take refuge at the resort.
Allen Riley, chief of the Squaw Valley Fire Department, said the acres of bare pavement and village area would be sufficient harbor for people to survive a quick-moving fire, although evacuation would be the first choice.
Under the redevelopment plan, much of the surface parking is slated to be used for structures, including parking garages, that could be used for shelter after construction is completed.
Riley cited communities in Australia as well as Rancho Santa Fe and Pepperdine University in California as places where shelter-in-place strategies have worked.
“Certainly, our first option is to have enough time, enough heads-up, to evacuate the valley,” Riley told the audience at a public meeting about fire safety. “We’re comfortable in saying that we have an area (at the resort) that can work as a really good safety zone if needed.”
Critics say that’s not good enough.
Isaac Silverman, an attorney for Sierra Watch, rejects the idea that shelter-in-place is right for Squaw Valley just because it has worked in parts of Southern California and Australia.
“Those are scrub chaparral environments, they’re not conifer forest environments,” Silverman said. “There’s a particular kind of firestorm that’s created in a forest.”
With Martis Valley the concern centers on the capacity for 267 to handle traffic during an emergency.
Although the project plan calls for emergency and seasonal secondary access roads to the development, those roads would also connect to 267, a highway that’s already crowded with traffic between Lake Tahoe and Truckee.
According to project documents, it would take an estimated 1.3 to 1.5 hours to evacuate the development, enough time for a fast-moving fire to burn through.
“In other words, the Project’s location and design are a recipe for catastrophic disaster,” environmental groups argued in court papers.
A potential increase in traffic also worries residents near the lake who would might also need to evacuate.
“You’ve got a narrow, tree-lined canyon from Kings Beach over 267,” Heinz said. “It would be an absolute death trap.”
DEVELOPERS: DON’T BLAME US FOR BIGGER PROBLEMS
Developers behind the projects acknowledge they’re looking to build in high fire hazard areas with traffic problems.
But they argue the problems will exist with or without the new development, as will solutions.
Cohen said he’s planning to coordinate drills in Squaw Valley that will test the community and the resort’s readiness to shelter-in-place during a disaster.
He said the resort already has access to ample amounts of water and personnel who could help direct people during an emergency.
“The correct approach for this place, development or not, is shelter-in-place,” Cohen said. “I think there are people in Paradise who will tell you they should have had that. If there had been shelter-in-place … fewer people would have died in their cars.”
The city of Paradise did have two designated gathering points for residents, and some rode out the firestorm in the Paradise Alliance Church. The second spot was a parking lot beside a senior center, which burned. At one point, with the road out of town blocked, firefighters also began directing residents to a grocery store parking lot, where they survived.
Eight of the Camp Fire’s 85 fatalities occurred in vehicles and two other bodies were found near vehicles, while the majority of human remains were discovered inside homes, according to Butte County’s final count. Wildfire and public safety experts generally agree that early evacuation is always the first and best strategy in the path of wildfire.
At Martis Valley, Morgan said developers are satisfied with their evacuation plan despite the court ruling it was inadequate.
On appeal in court and during an interview the developers pushed back against the notion they don’t have an adequate plan.
“Of course, in the wake of the Camp Fire and other recent disasters, no one disputes the seriousness of the wildland fire threat, or the need for serious planning to prepare for such disasters,” Martis Valley West attorney Whit Manley wrote. “The (environmental impact report) served its function by ensuring the debate was fully informed.”
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