Lightning quick: Fast response snuffs out South Shore wildfire
August 1, 2009
Lightning sparked a small wildfire that burned a quarter acre of forest near Lake Tahoe Community College on Friday afternoon.
The lightning strike that started the fire was one of several in the region on Friday.
About 3:40 p.m., firefighters responded to several reports of smoke and flames in the area of Al Tahoe Boulevard and Pioneer Trail.
Firefighters from South Lake Tahoe Fire Department, Lake Valley Fire Protection District and the U.S. Forest Service responded to the fire, which was on city property.
The fire burned in sage brush and was spreading at a moderate rate before firefighters arrived, said South Lake Tahoe Division Chief Brad Piazzo.
About 4:15 p.m., South Lake Tahoe Fire Marshal Ray Zachau said the fire would be out in a matter of minutes.
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“The quick response of the fire units contributed to the successful outcome,” Piazzo said afterward, noting that fire crews were able to get water on the fire quickly with the use of Lake Valley’s water tender.
Friday’s wildfire was the first significant fire where two wildland engines recently acquired by the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department saw use, Zachau said.
“When you can drive right up and put water on it, it makes a huge difference,” Zachau said.
Fuels reduction work in the area also played a part in keeping the fire on the ground, Zachau said, noting the tree the lighting hit was burned from top to bottom.
Piazzo said law enforcement was prepared to begin evacuations of the Pioneer Village neighborhood near the fire, but that turned out not to be necessary.
“Fortunately, the winds were calm and the fire was contained to that quarter-acre,” Piazzo said.
The lightning strike near the college was one of at least two instances on Friday where lighting struck ground at the South Shore, Zachau said. The other confirmed strike was near the Heavenly Mountain Resort gondola, but it didn’t ignite, Zachau said.
The South Lake Tahoe wildfire wasn’t the only one in the region on Friday.
Firefighters continued to work an eight-acre fire above Highway 4 in Alpine County on Friday evening, said Helen Frazier with the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center.
The Centerville Flats fire, as it is being called, was first reported at 11:16 a.m. in heavy timber above Markleeville.
The fire was burning on U.S. Forest Service land. No structures were threatened.
About three-dozen firefighters from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Alpine County – including two air tanker crews, a hand crew, a helicopter crew and two engine crews – responded to the blaze.
One firefighter working on the fire was helicoptered away with heat exhaustion.
Although there had been lightning in the area since Thursday, the cause of the Centerville Flats fire was not known Friday evening, Frazier said.
As of 7 p.m. Friday, firefighters were responding to several reported lightning fires throughout the Sierra Front, the dispatch center reported on its Web site. The fires were small, with most involving single trees or less than one acre.
Firefighters also responded to a lightning strike Friday that set a power pole on fire in the 2700 block of Esaw St. in Carson Valley.
According to reports, a “direct lightning strike” hit power lines, setting a pole on fire and “frying” a nearby transformer. Some vegetation around the site also caught fire.
Around 5:25 p.m., reports came in that another power pole was on fire near the county’s water treatment plant off Heybourne Road.
In a story in Friday’s Tribune, Ron Neilson, a professor of botany at Oregon State University and bioclimatologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, noted the role lightning can play when it comes to starting wildfires.
“It’s usually lightning storms that trigger multiple fires,” Neilson said. “Our computer models are pretty accurate at determining the vegetation, moisture and climatic conditions that set the stage for fire, but can’t always predict whether or not something will actually light them.”
The National Weather Service in Reno was predicting slight chances of isolated thunderstorms in the Lake Tahoe area through Sunday night.
– Tribune Managing Editor Elaine Goodman and Kurt Hildebrand of The Record Courier contributed to this story.