Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail: fire in the forest
Rounding the southern end of Lake Tahoe on the Tahoe Rim Trail, one can’t help but think of one of the most pressing issues in the area — fire.
After the Angora fire destroyed more than 250 homes and caused more than $140 million in damage starting June 24, everybody wants to know what is being done to keep such a catastrophic blaze from happening again. Forest treatment, or fuels reduction to reduce fire hazard, has received additional scrutiny and money.
For obvious reasons, forests close to structures and communities get first priority for efforts to reduce fire danger, said Rex Norman, spokesperson for The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service.
“The majority of our work is to protect community areas and critical watersheds,” Norman said.
Generally, more remote wilderness and recreation areas get lower priority, but there are some exceptions, he said.
While treating built-up areas to prevent another large- scale loss like the 254 homes in South Lake Tahoe this summer, the Forest Service is also looking to prevent fires started by people, like the illegal campfire that started the Angora blaze.
“Some areas are being treated because of higher fire-start potential, wherever forested areas get a lot of use and there is a greater potential for human started fire,” Norman said.
This means places like campgrounds where campfires could spark larger infernos, Norman said.
But up in the higher reaches of the Tahoe rim, natural conditions mean fire risks are lower, he said.
“Higher elevation starts are less common. The fuel loads are naturally lower and there is less potential,” Norman said.
Despite about 14 lightning-started fires in the high country per year, those fires rarely grow large because of those conditions, he said.
He said those fires rarely grow larger than one-quarter acre, and normally fire crews catch them at one-tenth of an acre.
Although clearly not as important as buildings and homes, the potential for a wilderness area to burn would mean the loss of another one of Tahoe’s characteristic resources.
If a large section on the rim burned, for example, fewer users would likely hike, ride horses, or bike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, said Erin Casey, associate director of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association.
Norman said it would have to be a fire of catastrophic proportions to affect the revenue for the Forest Service, but the perceived size of the fire has impacted users as well.
“Angora has had a significant perception effect. The perception from people out of the area is that Tahoe is all black, or that they can’t get here, even though the Angora fire only affected 1.5 percent of the land area in the basin,” Norman said.
Although people on backcountry trails like the Tahoe Rim Trail have the potential to start a wildfire with a campfire, there is also a possible positive effect, Casey said.
“We have people report smoldering fires from the trail,” Casey said. “Having people out there is really great and helpful in that way.”