TRPA column: Marching forward with forest health (Opinion)
Last week our collective memories returned to that terrible November morning as a raging wildfire swept through Paradise, California.
We woke that morning to images of wholesale devastation as fearsome winds drove racing flames from one town and one home to the next. We were horrified to watch videos of citizens running for their lives, desperately trying to escape the smoke and flames that were engulfing everything in their path.
Eighty-five people lost their lives — the deadliest fire in California history — in what we now call the Camp Fire. For those of us who live in wildfire country, the Camp Fire was another harrowing reminder of what has become an all too frequent and common occurrence. The landscape dries out, the winds begin to howl, and our anxiety levels start to rise. The impacts of the Camp Fire hit close to home. It happened to us back in 2007 with the Angora Fire.
On the South Shore, many people vividly recall a sunny but very windy Sunday afternoon in June when an unattended campfire sparked a devastating blaze. Strong afternoon winds pushed the flames into nearby neighborhoods and would eventually burn 254 homes to the ground. In terms of acres — 3,100 — the fire was small, but the devastation has left a lasting scar on the community.In the years since the Angora Fire, we have accomplished a great deal to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire at Tahoe.
TRPA is proud to have played a leadership role in building what is now considered a national model for a collaborative approach to forest health. More than 20 federal, state, local, and tribal partners established the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team in 2008. This collaborative working group brought together multiple agencies with two main purposes: reducing hazardous fuels through thinning forests in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), and preparing our communities and its citizens for dealing with wildfires.
Over the last decade, Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team partners have treated 57,000 acres in the Wildland Urban Interface by thinning overgrown and unhealthy forests, and by using prescribed burns to increase the resiliency of our forests to wildfire threats. It’s estimated that there are some 13,000 small and undeveloped lots within the Lake Tahoe Basin. Tahoe Fire and Fuels team partners are working on completing initial treatments on 100% of those lots. And fire agencies will continue to work with individual homeowners to help them create fire defensible space on their properties.
In the next five years, fire agencies are planning to treat another 22,000 acres across the Wildland Urban Interface where our neighborhoods meet the forest.In the coming years, you will hear more about the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership which targets treatment of an additional 60,000 acres of forest on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. Many forested areas on this side of the lake are dense and overgrown and are highly susceptible to catastrophic fire. A strategy for treatment has been developed collaboratively with agencies, stakeholders, and scientists. The public will be able to comment on these plans next year, and implementation is set to begin by 2022.
Partner agencies realize we must work together to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration projects. This plan requires unprecedented coordinated forest thinning and prescribed fire projects across multiple jurisdictions. This landscape-scale approach will help create forests that are more resilient to a changing climate and will restore sensitive streams and meadows, better manage invasive species, and create healthier environments for native plants and animals.
You too have a role in supporting forest restoration at Lake Tahoe. That support means realizing that a healthy forest may have a different look and feel than the forests we’ve grown accustomed to seeing here at the lake. Forest thinning projects—especially at the outset—can dramatically change the look of the landscape.
A thinner, less dense forest is a healthier forest. And we will need to come to grips with the smoke impacts from prescribed burns. While short-term impacts from these planned burns can be difficult to manage, it’s nothing compared to the smoke impacts from a raging wildfire. Both wildfire and forest thinning alter the landscape, but only wildfire leaves catastrophic change in its wake.
This summer, during wildfire awareness month, we asked the question, “Are you ready for wildfire?” As a community, we must ask a series of questions: have we taken steps to harden our homes’ exteriors from flying embers? Do we know the safest evacuation routes from our neighborhoods? Do we have a Go-Bag packed?
Being prepared is answering yes to all of these questions.In the coming years, through collaboration and partnership, we will restore tens of thousands of acres of forests here at Lake Tahoe. We can create healthier forests that are more resilient to the threats of climate change and wildfire. While it’s impossible to extinguish the threat of wildfire from our landscape completely, we can each do our part to prepare our homes and our families for the next time wildfire strikes.
For more information visit tahoe.livingwithfire.info.
Joanne S. Marchetta is executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency