‘Operation Save the Basin’: Fire district raising money for Tahoe-based helicopters
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District has launched a campaign to purchase a helicopter, which would be a key piece in protecting the basin from future wildfires.
The campaign, “Operation Save the Basin,” is a fundraising and education effort to help change the way the Basin prepares and fights fires.
When Tahoe Douglas Fire Chief Scott Scott Lindgren joined the district in December 2014, he was already very aware of the gap in air coverage fire districts around the basin were experiencing.
Lindgren has a background in aviation and previously worked for Cal Fire Amador-El Dorado Unit, where he had access to McClellan Air Force Base.
According to Lindgren, when Cal Fire set-up their air tanker program, they were spread out based on a 20-minute air response time to anywhere within their jurisdiction. However, in the early 90s, Lindgren said changes to the budget led to many bases being cut, including a base in Auburn, which was closest to the basin.
Their justification for the cut was that the Forest Service had helicopters in Grass Valley, Placerville and Bridgeport. There are several reasons why that’s a problem for the basin.
“The problem is the Forest Service ones don’t staff the same, for the same length of time, they don’t own the helicopter, it’s smaller, not as capable and they’re a national resource so those helicopters go all over and you can’t count on them being there,” Lindgren said.
Not only that, but flying a helicopter from the valley into the basin is difficult and technical flying, which slows down response time.
While there is a Super Scooper at Lake Tahoe Airport, it’s a national resource and is often used in other fires around the country.
The Tamarack Fire is a very recent example of why there needs to be a helicopter in the basin, according to Lindgren. It was a lightning fire that the Forest Service decided to let burn itself out. However, it didn’t burn out and spread and devastated parts of Alpine County and Nevada.
In Lindgren’s opinion, the initial fire could have easily been put out with a helicopter.
“If we had this helicopter program in place, nobody would know what the Tamarack Fire was,” Lindgren said.
Lindgren said about 40% of fires in the basin are started by lightning and with climate change and drought conditions, firefighting needs to be more aggressive.
“To me, fires give you a window of opportunity,” Lindgren said. “Whether it’s 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, whenever it gives you that window of opportunity to either put it out or gain ground on it, you have to go after it.”
During the Caldor Fire, another lightning fire, the Glen Fire, started in the TDFPD’s jurisdiction just above Glenbrook. Air tankers already in the area for the Caldor Fire were able to easily put that fire out.
In an ideal world, Lindgren would like to purchase two Type 1 helicopters. Those helicopters can carry up to 10 ground crew members and up to 1,000 gallons of water, that’s compared to the Forest Service helicopters that carry up to 150 gallons. A typical fire engine carries about 500 gallons.
Lindgren said he would take one helicopter over 30 engines every day because of their capacity and ability to quickly access remote areas.
The district would also need to build a helibase and they are currently working with Douglas County on several potential spots. While the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has banned any more airfields in the basin, they do have an emergency use clause, which Lindgren is hoping to use.
The total cost would be about $60 million and according to Lindgren, the Tamarack Fire cost almost $9 million to suppress and did over $300 million in damage.
The helicopters wouldn’t just be used for wildfire either. They can be used for backcountry rescue. While it wouldn’t take the place of air ambulances, there have been times when local air ambulance services have had so many calls that rescue could take up to an hour and a half. A lot of times, people don’t have an hour and a half, so these helicopters can be used for immediate rescue, then the patient can be transferred to medical helicopters.
It also can read heat signatures, so it can be used to quickly find people during an avalanche.
With many of Lake Tahoe’s casinos aging, in case of an emergency, it can be used for roof rescues.
And while TDFPD is taking the lead, Lindgren said he has the support of all the fire chiefs in the basin and it will be a basin-wide resource.
In addition to campaigning for the helicopters, Lindgren is also raising awareness about the need to change how the basin prepares for fire.
“The Tahoe Basin has been really good at doing fuels reductions but we don’t have a legitimate fuel break,” Lindgren said.
What Lindgren means by fuel break is a 300 to 1,000 foot area around the whole basin where the forest is thinned, its shaded and oftentimes grassy. He describes it as a “place where you can make a stand and protect the communities.”
“I don’t want people to think I’m only interested in protecting the communities, because I’m after keeping the lake blue and protecting the animals and the wildlife and the environment and the forest. It’s a treasure to us that we’ve got to protect,” Lindgren said.
But he fears that if they don’t move fast on building the fuel break, there won’t be a basin to protect.
During the Caldor Fire, crews had to quickly get in front of fire and build the fuel break before it reached communities, which fortunately for the basin, they were able to do.
“If you’re trying to build those breaks as the fire is advancing, you can’t do as good of a job, you’re pressed for time, you’re just trying to cut them in quick,” said Tahoe Douglas Fire Marshal Eric Guevin.
However, many sensitive habitats, such as the Angora Meadow were destroyed during the building of the fuel break. So, if built before a fire even starts, they can be built around sensitive habitats and in a way that protects the environment.
This will be an expensive and timely project but Lindgren said he’s gotten support from the Forest Service and other Tahoe districts.
Another benefit of the helicopter is that when its not being used for fire or rescue, it can be used to lift out large trees during the building of the fuel break.
This campaign is a huge undertaking and Lindgren is currently giving presentations to local politicians, agencies and neighborhood associations.
The district is asking for donations that will be used solely on the helicopter program and Lindgren said any amount will help.
They’ve already raised $50,000 and Lindgren said if they can’t reach the $60 million goal, the money will be put towards either a used helicopter, a smaller helicopter or to rent helicopters during the fire season.
In addition to financial support, Lindgren is also looking for help spreading the news of the campaign throughout the whole basin and help marketing and fundraising for the campaign.
Lindgren said he’s happy to come give his presentation to anybody interested in hearing it.
For more information, or to make a donation, visit https://tahoefire.org/helicopter.
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