Lake Tahoe officials gearing up for fire season; forecast predicts ‘above normal’ potential for wildfire
State and local fire officials are gearing up for a potentially active wildfire season once the mostly green Tahoe Basin finally begins drying out.
The late winter has pushed back the more active parts of the season, with relatively few incidents sparking in the area in recent weeks.
The threat for wildfires typically ramps up between August and October, with elevations above 6,000 feet experiencing a later season. Officials say the season has even extended beyond that in recent years, with fires sparking into late December.
If the last two years are any indication of what the upcoming wildfire season will look like, it could be devastating.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s predictions, concerns for wildfires are higher than average this year because of an “abundant crop of fine fuels in the lower to middle elevations.”
Chris Anthony, assistant fire chief with CalFire, said the trends have been clear: the fires are getting larger and causing more damage. Anthony emphasized that the issue is not isolated to just one region of the state.
“In 2017 and 2018 we saw records break again and again,” he said. “And these are records we don’t want to break. We in California as firefighters are working in an environment that has changed and we have to adapt.”
Wildfires have already sparked in the western end of the county, including in California, prompting firefighters from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit to respond to blazes in Oregon, Alaska and Canada. Local agencies typically prepare to share resources by bolstering staffing.
Kyle Jacobson, assistant fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said the Forest Service bases its staffing needs on weather conditions; as it gets hotter and drier more employees are put in rotation. Communication is also upped between the Forest Service, CalFire and local fire protection districts to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“We want to make sure our responses are going to be efficient and that we are coordinating resources to make sure they have everything they need,” he said. “We are all actively involved in fuels reduction and we do quite a bit around the lake with pile chipping and prescribed burns. A lot of stuff goes on prior to the season to make sure we are prepared for whatever it may bring.”
Ryan Sommers, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District chief, said the district has had to provide support on two fires outside of the Lake Tahoe area. But, he added, “Overall it has been relatively slower this year.”
Sommers decided to bump up the seasonal employment rate from about 30 to 40, including two full hand crews. While waiting for things to pick up, the district has addressed fuel projects in the basin.
“For this year the green up has lasted a bit longer than it has in previous years,” he said. “We had a later winter and temperatures have been keeping the moisture in the fuels. I think if we keep up with the current weather pattern of no participation and consistent warm days it will really start to dry out.”
Bruce Martin, interim fire chief for South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue, said there have been a number of small, vegetation fires. But, his crews have not responded to any incidents out of state.
“I would say it has been pretty typical,” he said. “The grass is still green and the snow isn’t even done melting yet. The brush you see on the side of the lower elevation hills is more receptive to burning in June and July. Timber is later. The flip side is you can get these fires through December.”
One benefit of the late season is that it has allowed fire officials more time to give residents the tools they need to prepare. Martin said a presentation before the City Council later this month will cover vegetation management and defensible spaces around homes.
“We are working on updating the evacuation plans for the city and figuring out how to continue educating the public,” he said. “Preparation is key.”
Even CalFire is changing the way the agency conducts business by adding more firefighters, aircrafts and engines. Anthony said they have been looking at increasing intelligence and response capabilities.
“The fires are getting larger and causing more damage,” he said. “And they are more difficult to control.”
While discussing the steps that the various agencies are taking to prepare for the wildfire season, officials also highlighted the responsibilities of residents and visitors to be aware of the current weather conditions.
Anthony emphasized the need for defensible spaces around homes and fuel reduction, along with clear evacuation plans. He said these are the conversations that are constantly taking place between the state, federal and local government agencies.
“These fires are moving at a pace that we haven’t seen before just with how quickly they move through the landscape people need to be ready to go,” he said. “Those are some of the lessons that we have learned over the last couple of years.”
Angelique McNaughton is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. Find her online at AngeliqueMcnaughton.com.