Abandoned campfires a threat to forests, homes | SierraSun.com

Abandoned campfires a threat to forests, homes

David Bunker
Sierra Sun
Photo by Jason Kelley/Sierra SunLinda Ferguson inspects a picnic table that was burned in an illegal campfire near Stampede Reservoir on the Tahoe National Forest.
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A stone’s throw from the waters of Stampede Reservoir, Linda Ferguson hops out of her green U.S. Forest Service pickup and walks over to the remnants of a now-cold, illegal campfire that has consumed a Forest Service picnic table.

Just behind the blackened planks of the table and the ashes of the fire, sun-baked sagebrush and pine trees sweep in uninterrupted forest north to the Sierra Valley.

“If a fire started in this area it would be really hard to catch,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson is the first line of defense against wayward or untended campfires that are often started in prohibited areas in Tahoe National Forest’s Truckee Ranger District.

Armed with a 50-gallon water tank and hose, a shovel, rake and pick, Ferguson patrols roughly 147,000 acres of forest from the southern edge of Granite Chief Wilderness to north of the Sierra County line.

Often, on Saturdays and Sundays out on patrol, she comes upon abandoned fires that are still smoldering.

“I just think they come out here, party and then they leave,” Ferguson said.

The illegal behavior can have dire consequences.

Untended or wayward campfires have been responsible for some of the most destructive and costly fires in the Truckee and Tahoe areas over the last decade.

The 2001 Martis Fire was sparked by an illegal campfire that hopped its rock ring and fed on the tinder-dry vegetation of the Juniper Hills forest east of Truckee.

That blaze burned an estimated 14,000 acres of forest and caused more than $18 million in damage and fire suppression expense.

The Gap Fire, which was sparked near the intersection of Highway 20 and Interstate 80 in 2001, and burned nearly 3,000 acres at an estimated cost of $5 million, also originated from a campfire.

“Those were both started by people not knowing how to properly put out their campfires and having a campfire where you are not supposed to,” Ferguson said.

Most recently, the 2004 Waterfall Fire consumed or damaged 31 homes near Carson City and charred 8,700 acres. It too was started by an illegal campfire.

Some campfires Ferguson comes upon around Truckee pose a direct threat to local homes.

On a dirt road above the Ponderosa Palisades and Sierra Meadows subdivisions, charred stumps are interspersed with bottles of Busch beer and Coke cans. It’s a typical teen party spot.

The campfire is illegal and subject to a $375 fine by the Forest Service. But the biggest worry for Ferguson is that an ember will ignite the tall pines, and leapfrog from tree to tree until it torches a neighborhood.

“I get concerned about the houses over there,” said Ferguson. “If this campfire were to escape, not only would it cause resource damage, but Ponderosa Palisades is right there.”

The Forest Service is not the only agency concerned with campfires turning into forest fires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which covers much of the areas abutting Truckee, also is on the lookout.

“Every campfire that is legal or illegal, we will go and patrol and look for it,” said forestry and fire protection spokeswoman Tina Rose. “We’ll jump right on it.”

With a big holiday weekend ahead, Ferguson said she hopes that vacationers, campers and hikers get the message not to start illegal fires.

Because ” unlike lightning strikes, which can be mapped, spotted by planes and planned for ” finding illegal campfires in the thousands of acres of forest around Truckee is like searching for a needle in a dangerously dry haystack.

“It’s those areas that you are not even supposed to have a campfire that you find this,” said Ferguson, pointing to the blackened remnants of the Forest Service picnic table.

– You must have a permit to build a fire, use a lantern or use a stove anywhere outside of developed campgrounds in the Tahoe National Forest. Permits are available at Forest Service offices.

– Check Forest Service regulations. Many areas, including land surrounding the Stampede, Boca and Prosser reservoirs and the forest behind Ponderosa Palisades, are closed to camping and campfires outside of developed campsites.

– Find a location that has at least 10 feet of clearance from vegetation all the way around the campfire.

– Extinguish campfire with water, using the “drown, stir and feel” method. If it is to hot to touch, the fire is not out and can re-ignite.

– Check on local and regional fire restrictions. Restrictions, usually in place under windy and dry conditions, mean that no campfire can be ignited outside of developed campgrounds.