All it takes is one spark…
Editor’s note: The following is a fictionalized account of what a major fire in the Truckee area might look like, the damage it could cause, and the battle plan that would be used to fight it. The following scenario is one that Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger identified as one of the worst-case scenarios possible in the Truckee area.
A cigarette thrown out the window by a passing motorist on Highway 267, a dirt bike backfiring in the area behind Martis Creek Lake or an abandoned backcountry campfire that jumps its fire ring.
It is late August and the temperatures have been hovering in the mid-80s for almost a month. The Truckee region has not had any rain for two months and the prevailing winds out of the southwest have been blowing steadily. In these conditions, any spark in the area east of Martis Creek Lake would spread quickly.
The fire starts at 2 p.m. at the base of the southwest-facing slope leading up to Glenshire. It is an area covered with tall grasses, sage and bitter brush, with a canopy of Jeffrey pine overhead – all volatile fuel sources in their natural form. The southwest exposure of the slope means that the hillside receives intense solar radiation all day, making the fuels even more explosively dry than usual.
From the start, such a fire would pose a serious threat to the Glenshire subdivision, a threat compounded by the prevailing winds and the limited access that fire-fighting personnel would have to the area.
In these conditions flames spread quickly. Racing up the slope and quickly consuming dozens of acres, the fire sends up a plume of dense black smoke that can be seen from Lake Tahoe after 30 minutes.
The smoke is noticed quickly by people recreating in the Martis Creek Lake Recreation Area, motorists driving along Highway 267 and volunteers at the nearby Martis Peak Fire Lookout.
After the fire is reported via 911, the information is sent to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) dispatch center in Grass Valley, which dispatches the Truckee Fire Department (TFD) and local CDF resources.
Initially, three fire engines and an officer from Truckee Fire are joined on the scene by the two local CDF fire engines, a CDF officer and two U.S. Forest Service fire engine companies.
Calls go out to all other fire-suppression resources in the area and CDF engines from the western slope of the Sierra respond along with hand crews from Washington Ridge, a bulldozer and two air tankers with an air attack supervisor and one helicopter.
The chief officers from Truckee Fire and CDF meet at the fire and formulate a plan of attack.
Meanwhile, the fire, fueled by strong winds out of the southwest, has already spread to 15 acres and continues to burn toward Glenshire.
In conditions like these, fire officers at the scene recognize the danger to homes in the area and quickly put out a call for mutual aid from all local firefighting agencies. The order is for five strike teams of engines, 25 engines total, to protect homes in Glenshire and Juniper Hills. The engines come from local agencies such as the Northstar Fire Department, Donner Summit Fire Department, Squaw Valley Fire Department, North Tahoe Fire Department and possibly the Meeks Bay and North Lake Tahoe Fire Departments, as well as CDF strike teams from the west slope.
With strong winds and dry fuels, the fire continues its march up the hill toward Glenshire, a subdivision containing many homes with wood shake roofs and wood siding. Too many Glenshire homes don’t have enough clearance from trees and shrubs, and few homeowners have cleared the recommended amount of defensible space around their houses.
With the extreme danger to homes in the subdivision, officials order the evacuation of at least the southeastern portion of Glenshire – the area south of Glenshire Drive and west of The Strand.
The Truckee Police Department dispatches officers to go door-to-door notifying people of the evacuation order and ensuring that residents got out safely. Only those areas that the fire service thinks will be affected are evacuated to reduce congestion and keep the roads clear for firefighting crews and equipment.
If possible, the fire service will broadcast relevant information on local radio station KTKE 101.5 FM and Truckee Tahoe Community Television Channel 6; however, all evacuations are done face-to-face to ensure that people who need to leave get the message in time.
By 4 p.m., the fire has spread to 350 acres and has now reached the first homes in Glenshire. The fire is already generating its own wind, sucking air up from Martis Valley and blanketing the region in a cloud of dense black smoke.
More firefighting resources are arriving from western Nevada, Placer and Yuba counties, and firefighters are doing their best to minimize the damage to property within Glenshire.
Burning embers from the advancing fire are falling throughout the subdivision, starting spot fires ahead of the main blaze when they land in combustible material.
Air tankers drop fire retardant on Glenshire and firefighters attempt to use Royal Crest and Royal Way as fire breaks and stop the fire there.
By 5 p.m. the fire front spans a half a mile and homes within Glenshire are burning.
Firefighters give priority to homes that have the best chance of survival, such as the ones that have been cleared of trees and brush. Homes with the recommended amount of defensible space are more likely to have an engine stationed in the driveway. Other factors will also play a role in determining which houses burn.
Those with wood roofs and/or pine needles built up on the roof and in gutters will be less likely to survive. Homeowners who have wood piles or other combustible debris stacked near their houses are likely to come home to devastation.
By 6 p.m. the winds have died down somewhat and the temperatures are just starting to drop from the midday high. All available firefighting resources in the region are in Glenshire, protecting homes and trying to halt the fire’s spread before it reaches the heart of the subdivision.
Firefighters are starting to get a handle on the blaze and the roads within the subdivision are starting to slow the fire’s spread.
At this point, ground crews have dumped 10,000 gallons of water on the fire and 100,000 gallons of fire retardant have been dropped by air tankers.
The blaze is contained when it reaches Donnington Lane on the north and The Strand on the east. Nonetheless, almost 50 homes southwest of those street have been completely destroyed. Another 50 are badly damaged, and every tree, bush and shrub within the fire area is now charcoal.
In addition, three other Glenshire homes have suffered extensive fire damage due to burning embers blown by the wind ahead of the fire. All three homes caught fire when burning embers landed on pine needles built up on their roofs.
The fire continues to burn for days, with hotspots burning for the next week or so, many of which will be the remains of homes that have been completely destroyed.
Homeowners in the burn area are let back in to survey the damage in a couple of days when firefighters have suppressed all of the flames. The area continues to smolder for the next week and homeowners are told to be on the lookout for flare-ups.
Fire engines and hand crews remain in the area throughout the week, putting out hotspots and ensuring that no flare-ups rekindle the fire.
Bad, but not the worst
Despite the damage the residents of Glenshire have dodged a bullet. Often during fire season, firefighting resources are spread thin due to other fires in the area or the state. In this case, all available engines, personnel and air support was able to respond to this fire, minimizing the damage and loss of life.
Also, our fire spread relatively slowly compared to real-life blazes in the area.
“The Martis Fire burned 14,000 acres in about 6 hours in the same fuel type under extreme conditions,” says Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger. The hypothetical fire “would have burned to Hirschdale under that scenario in the same amount of time.”
Fortunately, no one was killed in the above scenario. However, it’s likely that a number of pets would not have survived the fire, and over $20 million worth of property damage would have been done.
In the aftermath, homeowners whose houses survived would look out on a charred landscape reminiscent of the land left barren by the Martis Fire.
“That sums it up,” Terwilliger says of the fire scenario. “I have not painted this picture to scare you, I did it to wake you up. We have a history of fire here; most recently the Cottonwood Fire, Crystal Fire, Hirschdale Fire and the Martis Fire.
All burned with the intensity to destroy multiple homes should they have been in the path. The Donner Fire and Glenshire Fire of last summer started on poor burn days, so we got lucky.”
The fire department, Terwilliger says, has information on how to develop a fire-safe zone to protect property.
“Quite frankly, hardly anyone is doing it in Truckee and only time will tell. If my imaginary Martis Fire #2 starts some summer it will be too late to start cleaning and you will really wish you had. You need to do it now.”
While the Glenshire subdivision was used to illustrate the mock fire scenario, fire officials in the area stress that almost every neighborhood in the Truckee region could face a similar situation. Some communities, such as Tahoe Donner and Lahontan, have identified the potential for a major fire in the area and have taken steps to address the danger by putting in fire breaks around their neighborhoods. But even in those communities, homeowners should realize that fire breaks are not 100-percent effective and making one’s home defensible and fire safe is the responsibility of the homeowner, Terwilliger says.
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