‘No miracle’: Christmas Valley, Meyers saved by firefighters, prevention measures
MEYERS, Calif. — The Caldor Fire has claimed more than 700 single family residences since it began on Aug. 14 but Christmas Valley and Meyers homes remained relatively unscathed.
Many have called this the “Christmas Valley Miracle,” but Lake Valley Fire Protection District Chief Brad Zlendick said it’s not a miracle, it’s the efforts of firefighters and years of prevention efforts that saved the area.
Lake Valley Fire Protection District has nearly 7,000 residences and when the Caldor Fire started, it seemed like it could never reach those residents. There was a belief that the fire could never cross the summit.
But it did and LVFPD was ready for it.
“It wasn’t even believed the fire would hit Tahoe … there’s always a possibility, never say never, it came to Tahoe,” Zlendick said. “We had our plan in place and the crews were prepared. We came everyday and looked at the maps and looked at what-if scenarios all day long.”
When it finally got to the basin, residents and crews quickly reacted.
Thea Hardy is a resident of Meyers and she recalled her experience of evacuating.
“It was surreal. Throughout the whole threat of the fire reaching the basin, officials were saying that a portion of Meyers would get a heads up warning before we received mandatory evacuation orders. The heads up came for Christmas Valley, and then it was eerily quiet until all of a sudden all of Meyers at the Elks Club got the order,” Hardy said. “The sky was dark and it was only 4:30 p.m., ash was falling from the sky and you could hear sirens surrounding our entire neighborhood on upper Apache. We couldn’t literally see the fire from the summit, although the fear was palpable. The smoke and ash were oppressive and you could tell everyone was moving and shaking.”
Hardy and her husband, Phil, would be getting married the Saturday following the evacuation, so along with their personal belongings, they packed the wedding supplies, as well.
“Everyone went through their own version of trauma throughout the process. Every moment of the days following evacuation was spent watching official Cal Fire updates and footage from many different sources: Twitter, Facebook, media, Alert Wildfire and even our neighbors’ nest cams, it was pretty horrifying,” Hardy said. “Especially Monday night. It had already ripped across our favorite ski resort – was headed toward Christmas Valley, then Monday night the high winds hurled it immediately to Coyote Rock / Cowboy Hat directly above our neighborhood. I can still feel the pit in my stomach as we watched that red dot indicating heat and active burning grow.”
Hardy’s home survived like her neighbors’ homes did and that was thanks to the efforts of LVFPD and the countless prevention measures put into place in the community.
LVFPD is part of the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team which was formed in 2008 with the aim of reducing fuels in the wildland and urban interface and preparing communities.
“The organizations have been very productive and there was quite a bit of time spent with multiple agencies in the Christmas Valley, Apache Neighborhoods,” said LVFPD Public Information Officer Martin Goldberg.
Tahoe Resource Conservation District is a member of the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team and they collaborate with local fire districts, public land management agencies, and neighborhoods to manage the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities (Tahoe Network).
“Tahoe Resource Conservation District, for the last few years, has helped Meyers and Christmas Valley prepare for this moment by encouraging defensible space and home hardening efforts and by spreading wildfire preparedness resources and evacuation information,” said Amanda Milici, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator for Tahoe RCD.
They’ve hosted wildfire preparedness presentations for the communities, evacuation drills and neighborhood defensible space work days.
“It’s about creating communities of homes that are working towards the same goal, so the fire wise communities and the living with fire and fire adapted communities… It is bringing people together to do the defensible space work, so making the 0 to 5 foot zones, 5 to 30 foot zones, and then 30 to 100 foot zones to your property line and reducing the fuel there,” Goldberg said. “We certainly came across homes that had done all of those things in our fire fight for sure, increasing the odds for us, helping us to do the job.”
LVFPD also implemented a roof replacement program to replace wood roofs.
“Lake Valley has been very aggressive I would say. The roof replacement program was a great success, [defensible] space, it’s absolutely vital,” Zlendick said. “That helps us get the foodhold on the fire. But the fire fight was another thing. The way the fire was fought, it was aggressive, they went after the fire and the defensible space and prevention work allowed them to be able to be successful. There were homes out there without defensible space completed and we were able to protect them but it was very obvious the areas that were treated and it’s a big difference.”
Homes with defensible space give firefighters an anchor place to start fighting the fire.
The homes that were not treated became a liability for the whole community. The Caldor Fire had embers that were being thrown ¾ of a mile to a full mile.
“In Christmas Valley, we had two homes damaged and an outbuilding damaged that came from embers catching either in the fuel beside the house, bringing it into the house or on a dry deck whatever it may be, or materials in the yard,” Zlendick said. “They could have been 100% losses as well those homes had a potential to burn the houses around them or have it run house to house ignition. So, when resources are thin it’s vital that your neighborhood is essentially as good as it can be for an ember shower.”
Mitigation work had also been done by land managers to create shaded fuel breaks by removing dead and downed trees, and cleaning up the forest floor removing some of the diseased and dying trees directly behind the homes on either state, federal or large private land.
“I think the work that Meyers and Christmas Valley residents did with the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities to prepare themselves and their homes before the Caldor Fire greatly complimented the mitigation work done by land management agencies and suppression efforts of the firefighters,” Milici said.
“All those things combined are helpful but the fire fighting was exceptional that day as well,” Goldberg said.
“I myself, live in Christmas Valley and I can see, from my own backyard, the fire scar and the physical evidence of the tireless effort of the firefighters who saved this community,” Milici said.
As evacuation orders were coming down, district staff got their families out of the area then immediately returned to the fire station. Every single staff member of LVFPD, including support staff, was staffing the station during the fight.
“We have a good fire department and it shows. Our town is here, I don’t need to say a whole lot outside of that, our actions showed,” Zlendick said.
The 2007 Angora Fire loomed large in the background of the Caldor Fire. During the Angora Fire, many of the same areas that faced Caldor were destroyed and many lessons were taken from that fire.
“One question I was asked after Angora is ‘what has your agency done or what have you changed post-Angora?’” Zlendick said. “We always try to find out what have we done, how have we bettered ourselves, what have we learned.”
Of the LVFPD crew who fought Caldor, nearly half had also fought Angora. All of the crew members have fought in at least one big Tahoe fire, which has given them valuable experience.
In addition, LVFPD sends out a crew to assist on California wildfires whenever possible.
“We’ve always managed to send an engine out on all of the state fires and it’s valuable experience that we gain so when something like this happens in our own area we have a toolbox to work with, we have the knowledge,” Goldberg said.
Help from surrounding fire districts helped significantly, as well. Several stations sent their full crew out to help LVFPD.
As Goldberg and Zlendick spoke about the prevention measures and defensible space, they kept coming back to the success of the firefighters actually battling the fire. While those measures gave the firefighters better odds, it came down to the ability and the passion of those on the ground.
“Once evacuations were lifted and we were finally able to return home, it was emotional. Driving U.S. Highway 50 into Meyers, looking up and seeing the area behind our neighborhood. Our dog walking zone and the forest up toward the rock was decimated,” Hardy said. “Echo Summit and Highway 50 will never look the same. But, thanks to many, we have our town. We have our community, and we will rebuild. That’s what matters. And that’s a community I want to be a part of.”
The fire still blazes. As of Sept. 16, it is 219,267 acres and 71% contained. So, for many El Dorado County residents, the fight is not over.
While Christmas Valley didn’t lose structures, the district recognizes the significant losses experienced elsewhere in the county.
In the coming weeks, Zlendick said he wants to host a community meeting, so the residents can share their thoughts and stories.
Milici said there are many lessons she learned from being an evacuee herself.
“It was definitely a very surreal experience to look at this work from my own lived experience and I think, moving forward, my experience will help inform the way I see this work and will help inform my perspective on evacuation and preparedness,” Milici said.
As the climate continues to change, this will almost certainly not be the last fire to threaten Tahoe but if Caldor has shown the region anything, it’s that fighting it as a community is the best way to beat it.
“If you want to talk about the miracle Christmas Valley, it’s not a miracle,” Zlendick said. “A lot of effort and a lot of support from fire chiefs all around and local government, they came forward and saved Meyers. It wasn’t a miracle at all, it was from prevention work in the years past and an aggressive fire fight.”
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