What has happened, is happening and is next in the Angora fire region?
The Angora fire, the largest and most destructive fire in the Tahoe Basin in at least a century, rapidly consumed 3,100 acres and more that 250 homes. First reported around 2 p.m. on Sunday June 24, the wind-driven fire moved with great spread and destructive force.
Roughly twice the firefighting force normally assigned to a fire of this size worked to contain the blaze. Although fixed-wing air tankers were employed early in the firefighting effort, helicopters proved to be more effective. Of the more than 20 air resources assigned, fourteen helicopters were assigned to the fire. Fixed-wing tankers often encounter dangerous flying conditions in the steep, wind-swept terrain of the basin. The helicopters, on the other hand, made quick turnarounds using nearby lakes, and delivered accurate water drops. By the early evening hours of Tuesday, June 26, winds calmed and remained mostly calm until the fire was contained.
The fire investigation determined that an illegal campfire was the cause of the fire. This all too common cause is responsible for too many wildfires, that result in far too many homes and resources lost or damaged, as well far too many millions of dollars spent annually.
Although the fire is fully contained, it is not fully controlled. Containment is the process of surrounding the fire with hand lines or bulldozer lines to reduce its chance of spreading. Control is declared when the fire can no longer escape any control lines.
The fire is “Declared Out” when no heat remains in the perimeter. Residents and visitors can expect to see occasional smoke from the area of the fire for some time to come.
The long-term costs
The damage from the fire will be long lasting. From the homes tragically lost to the resources scarred and charred, the South Shore area will be living with the impacts of the Angora fire for some time. One of the visible lessons learned from this fire is that modern Defense Zone fuels-reduction treatments near communities worked. A large number of homes were saved when these completed treatment areas on NF lands slowed and moderated the fire approach. Initial observations indicate that in the areas where homes were lost, most were ignited not by burning trees, but by intensely hot embers driven by the high winds. Many of the homes that were totally destroyed are surrounded by standing trees that were not destroyed, but were scorched, not burned. Indications show that the trees did not carry the fire across most of the affected areas, but that wind driven embers did, through much of the area, and ignited flammable components of structures. The results of the Angora fire will be carefully studied to learn how winds, terrain, fuels and structures interacted.
Restoration of the National Forest’s Angora fire lands will have three phases: suppression rehab, Burned Area Emergency Response, and long-term restoration. Even before containment, the Forest Service began assessing the resource impacts on Forest Service lands involved in the fire. The Angora fire burned more than 2,700 acres of National Forest lands out of the 3,100-acre fire.
Teams are assessing watershed impacts, fire intensity, habitat and cultural resource impacts. As containment neared, the fire crews began conducting “suppression rehabilitation,” the process of reducing the damaged made by cutting fire hand-lines and bulldozer lines.
Responding to damage
One of the teams assembled is a BAER Team — Burned Area Emergency Response. BAER work is designed to minimize threats to life, property, and natural and cultural resources from erosion, flooding and mudslides originating in wildfire-damaged landscapes, and to reduce additional damage to burned areas. The goal is to implement emergency treatments on the ground before the first damaging seasonal storm arrives.
BAER assessment teams are assembled and begin work while the wildfire is still burning. They survey the burned area, determine if any values are at risk, identify priority areas for treatment and provide an assessment that guides the implementation of the on-the-ground treatments.
BAER work is focused on short-term stabilization actions to help burned areas get through several seasons, especially the first critical winter. Longer-term restoration and rehabilitation work is also needed. That long term work will be conducted by the staff of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
The BAER assessment report is anticipated to be finalized by the Forest Supervisor by July 13, 2007. Implementation of the on-the-ground treatments will begin as soon as the report is completed and funding has been approved. All BAER treatments are expected to be complete before the winter storm season. Of significant importance is reducing the impacts of ash run-off in the Angora Watershed, and into Lake Tahoe.
Minimizing continued risk
To protect the public and the damaged resources, a Closure Order has been issued for the National Forest Lands of the Angora fire. This order prohibits public entry into the fire area for reasons of safety and resource protection. The greatest hazard present in the fire area is that of falling and rolling trees. As mortality spreads among the fire damaged stands, trees will fall, and will continue to fall for some time. Although crews are addressing hazard tress when they are identified, the process of mortality will continue for months throughout the fire area. The closure also reduces additional soil damages that would result from heavy foot or vehicle traffic.
The National Forest Lands of the Tahoe Basin are under fire restrictions until further notice. These restrictions prohibit campfires except within developed, fee campgrounds where fire rings are provided. Fires are not permitted at the two semi-developed campgrounds at Luther Pass and Blackwood Canyon. Smoking is prohibited except within an enclosed vehicle or building, within a developed recreation site or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material. Federal, state and local regulations prohibit fireworks year-round in the Tahoe Basin.
Fire prevention vigilance has been significantly increased. Forest Service Fire prevention personnel of the basin are now being supported by a National Fire Prevention Team, who will be actively patrolling and contacting forest users.
Recovery will take time. County and local government agencies are working hard to assist the affected communities, and the Forest Service is working in concert with basin agencies, all of which are fully committed to doing their parts in stabilizing and rehabilitating the Angora Creek Watershed.
— Rex Norman is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit headquartered in South Lake Tahoe.