Snowfall, cold weather delay start of fire season |

Snowfall, cold weather delay start of fire season

Adam Jensen

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A winter season that has been reluctant to end should keep the wildfire threat at a welcome low throughout much of the West this summer, according to an annual fire outlook released this month.

But the dangers of an unattended campfire or an errant cigarette butt never really go away, according to Lake Tahoe Basin fire agency representatives.

A wildfire outlook released by the National Interagency Fire Center May 1 shows this year’s “unusually deep” snowpack will reduce the potential for significant wildfires to below normal throughout much of the Sierra Nevada this summer.

The range’s higher elevations will experience a below average potential for wildfires through July, with a return to near normal conditions by early August, according to the outlook.

“Overall, we’re looking at a late state to the fire season,” said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck on Tuesday, adding other regions of the country have not been so lucky.

Lake Tahoe basin Management Unit staff have already been dispatched to help fight fires in Georgia and Texas, Heck said. Florida, as well as large swaths of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Kansas have above average potentials for fire this summer.

This month’s outlook lists all of Nevada as having a typical potential for wildfire this summer, but some of the state will benefit from the Sierra Nevada snowpack.

Western Nevada typically sees its first significant fires in the last half of June, and full fire activity during July and August. Snow levels should push significant fires back two weeks or more, according to the outlook.

Unseasonably cool temperatures expected in the Lake Tahoe region for the next several weeks and are also likely to add to the delay in wildfire activity, said Rhett Milne, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno. Temperatures are expected to be 10 to 15 degrees below average through June 10, Milne said.

Still, a stretch of windy, warm weather and an careless act by one person can quickly turn a fire prediction on its head, said Lake Valley Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Andy Kaufer.

“If we get that alignment, anything can happen,” Kaufer said.

Heck agreed, saying average to below average fire season activity does not preclude the possibility of a human-caused fire getting out of control.

The East Shore, which gets less snowfall than elsewhere in the basin, may not see as much benefit from the season’s abundant snowfall in terms of wildfire protection, Heck added. The area’s snowpack will melt sooner and its fuels will dry out faster, increasing the potential for small fires to grow, Heck said.

Lower elevations at the lake will also become increasingly susceptible to wildfire as surrounding peaks stay capped in snow, said Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Mark Novak.

Smaller diameter fuels like cheat grass are already starting to dry out in the Carson Valley and pine needles and twigs will also be able to carry a fire at the lake, even as larger fuel like downed trees remain moist, Novak said.

He encouraged residents to enact fire safety measures like defensible space as soon as possible, noting Memorial Day Weekend as typically a good time to have such preparations in place.

“It’s one of those things where we can’t let our guard down, but we shouldn’t expect any significant wildfires anytime soon,” Novak said.

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