Close Call: 100-acre fire suppressed before reaching Tahoe Donner subdivision
Firefighters still at the scene of the Donner Fire that burned up the slope between Interstate 80 and Tahoe Donner this week have been busy extinguishing live fires within the burn area and reinforcing the fire line around the 100-acre blaze that was fully contained by 6 p.m. Monday evening.
Crews said they hope to have complete control over the fire by Friday.
The fire originated Saturday afternoon around 1:45 p.m. near the Vista Point overlook on I-80 and burned uphill toward the Tahoe Donner subdivision.
At peak, a total of 350 fire personnel were working the Donner Fire, which investigators currently believe started as an abandoned illegal campfire.
Firefighters at the scene cited the high level of cooperation between all of the agencies involved in battling the fire as a major reason crews were able to quickly gain control, before it could reach homes near Skislope Way.
“We have a very good mutual aid program up here,” said California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Doug Rinella. “Because we have so many small fire departments, we’re used to working together throughout the year on all types of incidents.”
The 100-acre fire, visible from I-80, burned up the steep slope containing an abundance of fuels until reaching the Tahoe Donner fuel break that had previously been put in around the subdivision. No evacuations of homes in Tahoe Donner were called for, though some residents were preparing to leave.
“We very quickly recognized the danger (to Tahoe Donner) and started a structure protection group up on the ridgeline and the neighborhood,” Rinella said. Eight fire engines were stationed in Tahoe Donner on Saturday afternoon to assess the threat posed to homes in the area and to be ready in case firefighters had to go on the defensive.
Firefighters were fortunate to be able to attack the Donner Fire with a full complement of fire crews and equipment due to the lack of other fires in the state.
A total of 10 hand crews, more than 15 fire engines, three water tenders and a bulldozer worked on the ground to contain the fire. In addition, seven fixed-wing air tankers and five helicopters dumped water and fire retardant on the blaze from the air.
Approximately 75 firefighters worked through the night Saturday to keep the fire from spreading, and by 7 a.m. Sunday morning, crews had it 50 percent contained.
Winds out of the southwest coupled with the steep terrain in the area made controlling the fire difficult for ground crews. Firefighters on the ground cited the Tahoe Donner fuels reduction program as a major reason the fire did not burn farther into the subdivision.
Tahoe Donner authorities and local firefighting agencies have long recognized the danger posed by the densely wooded slope between the subdivision and the freeway. According to Rinella, “90 percent of the large fires in this country burn from the southwest to the northeast, so it only makes sense that Tahoe Donner would be vulnerable if a fire started anywhere south of it… and the freeway offers that ignition source.”
In an attempt to lessen the risk to homes along the ridgeline in Tahoe Donner, the Tahoe Donner forestry department thins large stands of trees near the ridgeline and attempts to clear brush away from tree trunks to prevent a ground fire from spreading quickly into the tree tops.
Costs of the firefighting effort are estimated to be approximately $350,000 according to Rinella, with $140,000 of that representing the cost of the aircraft used to fight the fire.
The fire also damaged two Sierra Pacific Power Company transmission lines in the area, creating a temporary power outage in Tahoe Donner Saturday afternoon. According to Gary Aldax at Sierra Pacific, the power was turned off as a precaution, and power was quickly rerouted and restored to Tahoe Donner customers Saturday afternoon.
Sierra Pacific currently estimates that it will take several weeks to repair the damaged lines at a cost of approximately $250,000. Sierra Pacific crews are already in the area trying to estimate what kind of materials and resources will be needed to fix the damaged lines.
Firefighters involved in fighting the Donner Fire came from the California Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, the Truckee Fire Department, the Donner Summit Fire Department, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Department, the Squaw Valley Fire Department, the Northstar Fire Department, the North Tahoe Fire Department and the Meeks Bay Fire Department.
CDF firefighters plan to remain at the scene monitoring the fire and mopping up hotspots until at least Friday. Investigators are not hopeful of finding the person or persons responsible for the fire, although an investigation is underway.
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