Pair of small wildfires in Tahoe Basin likely started by illegal campfires

The U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit was involved in extinguishing a pair of wildfires Sunday, which were likely started due to illegal campfires.

One of the fires was started near Watson Lake on the northwest side of Tahoe, and the other was started south of the basin in Meiss Country.

The fire in Meiss Country, called the Round Fire, was reported at approximately 12:50 p.m. Sunday, and burned roughly one-tenth of an acre after an illegal campfire in a rock fire ring spread into heavy fuels.

Tallac Hotshots and an Eldorado National Forest helicopter, which made numerous water drops, were used to extinguish the fire. Fire prevention staff noted numerous rock fire rings in the area that showed recent fire activity. Campfires haven’t been allowed in the area for roughly three years.

“We were having so many problems with unattended campfires that we decided to make that area campfire free,” said Lisa Herron, public affairs specialist for the forest service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

The Round Fire was also in a remote area of the backcountry, and was roughly a two-hour hike for the forest service’s fire prevention technician.

“That’s the case with a lot of these places where people are continuing to have these fires,” said Herron. “They are in very remote areas where if something were to happen, it could take a while for firefighters to get in there.”

The other fire, called the Beach Fire, was on the south side of Mount Pluto near Watson Lake, according to the forest service, and was reported at approximately 2:05 p.m.

A pair of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection engines were called in along with the Slide Mountain Hand Crew from the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District to extinguish the fire, which also burned approximately one-tenth of an acre.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation as of Wednesday, but, according to the forest service, evidence points toward a campfire.

“They are not supposed to be having campfires in those areas at all,” said Herron. “Part of the problem is there’s a lot of existing rock fire rings and people come across them and say, ‘Oh it’s probably OK to have a fire here.’

“There’s a lot of those rock fire rings all over, and most of them are old, before we had our current fire restrictions that we have now.”

At this time no individuals or groups have been cited in the two illegal fires, according to Herron, but the incidents each remain under investigation.

Leading cause

Illegal campfires, Herron said, are the leading cause of wildfires in the Tahoe Basin.

“We would really like to spread the word about these illegal campfires,” she said. “We do have year-round fire restrictions here that say you can only have a campfire in a designated campground.”

Campfires aren’t permitted on national forest lands within Tahoe Basin except in designated areas and within provided steel campfire rings.

“People just need to find out before they go,” said Herron. “You need to find out when and where you can have a campfire before you go start one anywhere.”

Portable camping stoves are allowed, but a valid California Campfire Permit must first be obtained. The permit is good on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe as well.

“We’re trying to get people in the habit of — rather than having a campfire — to have one of those portable camp stoves,” said Herron.

Having an illegal campfire is punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 for an individual, or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both, according the forest service’s camping and campfire restrictions.

“It is a very serious fine if you’re caught doing it,” said Herron. “The problem is we just don’t have enough staff to patrol all of these areas.”

In the Tahoe Basin the Forest Service manages approximately 154,000 acres. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has two law enforcement officers that patrol the area and a shared supervisor with the Tahoe National Forest.

See an illegal campfire, call 911

With limited manpower, Herron said the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is turning to the public for help.

“The public is a crucial part of this because they are out there. They are out there coming across these things, so we would really welcome their help,” said Herron. “If people come across a fire ring or there was evidence of a fire recently, but it’s not burning or hot, then we’re going to ask them to go onto the website and use the ‘contact us’ form.”

If possible, GPS coordinates should be sent to the site, along with information to help the management unit find the area.

If a burning or smoldering fire is found, Herron said 911 should be called immediately.

“There’s a danger there if it’s actively burning,” she said.

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit encourages visitors and locals to “know before you go,” before heading onto national forest lands. Fire restriction information for the Tahoe Basin can be found at

“We want people to go out and have a good time and explore their national forest lands,” said Herron, “but we want people to do it safely, so that we don’t have these unneeded fire starts.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.