Vegitation could spell fire trouble |

Vegitation could spell fire trouble

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Homes at South Lake Tahoe most at risk for wildland fire sit on steep lots near Heavenly Ski Resort.

The information is in a report released by the U.S. Forest Service Center for Urban Forest Research at UC Davis.

“The mean fire hazard rating was … relatively low … largely due to the city’s wide, paved roads, the availability of water, and the presence of firefighting resources,” wrote Lisa de Jong, a research forester. “(But) hazardous decks are a chronic problem for homes in the Heavenly tract, where most decks hang over steep slopes covered with surface fuels.”

The study, completed last summer, looked at 102 residential lots at South Lake Tahoe. It found the Tahoe Keys to be least at risk for a wildfire in part because of irrigation.

“The vegetation in Tahoe Keys is well-irrigated, whereas more than 75 percent of the parcels in Heavenly have little evidence of irrigation,” wrote de Jong, who no longer works for the Forest Service and could not be reached for comment.

The study found that 75 percent of the properties examined had little or no defensible space, which means eliminating flammable materials within 30 to 100 feet of a home so firefighters have room to set up and defend a home. Guidelines don’t require the area be completely clear, but vegetation within the area needs to be well-watered and spaced apart.

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When researchers factored in neighboring lots, that percentage rises to 83 percent, with homes in the Tahoe Keys, Bijou and Al Tahoe tracts most affected by the reconfiguration. De Jong concluded that the proximity of homes with no defensible space to those that are prepared for a wildfire is an important factor to consider if a fire safe plan is designed for South Lake Tahoe.

“Although the city’s firefighting infrastructure is well developed, individual homeowners in the community rarely consider fire safety when choosing construction materials, type of property maintenance and landscaping and defensible space” de Jong wrote. “Many compliant lots are affected by the fire hazard on neighboring noncompliant lots.”

While the Forest Service is funding studies to remind residents that defensible space is not something to be ignored, it aims to begin its own work this summer to create defensible space along the West Shore at Ward Creek.

Ward Creek is just south of Sunnyside where a large number of homes skirt thick forest. The thinning work being done since 1999 will involve creating what firefighters call an urban defense, involving 1,400 acres. Work to be done this summer will include hand-thinning, which means crews in the woods working with chain saws.

“In the mid-1990s, we looked at the whole basin and evaluated … conditions and prioritized them at landscape level,” said Scott Parsons, Forest Service vegetation manager at the basin. “Ward Canyon has a high fuel load in close proximity (to homes).”

A similar thinning project occurred along Pioneer Trail where foresters created an urban defense zone involving about 3,000 acres.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at