Despite drought’s end, wildfire danger persists
The Truckee River is raging, Lake Tahoe’s water level is high, and the drought emergency is over — but that doesn’t mean wildfires aren’t still a major concern in the Sierra this summer.
The Reno National Weather Service and the National Interagency Fire Center are expecting wildfire season to be pushed back due to the large amount of precipitation that fell during the winter months.
“We will have a later start,” said U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Fire Chief Kit Bailey. “The determination of fire season really has a lot to do with spring weather — that’s a big determinate.”
Bailey said since the spring weather has been mild so far, that is expected to contribute to the fire season’s delay.
“Things will become more of a risk later in the season, probably late July,” Bailey said. “Things are going to dry out this year, eventually, unless we have this crazy wet summer, but that’s not completely in the forecast and those long-range forecasts aren’t the most reliable.”
Bailey said that just because something is in the forecast doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to occur.
“Not to dis the weather service, they do a great job, but their long range forecast for this winter wasn’t even close,” he said. “Nobody forecasted a record-breaking year.”
The most recent long-range forecast from the National Weather Service, made May 18, shows a 50 percent or greater likelihood that the Sierra will experience above normal temperatures this summer.
“It’s all about ignitions. Ignitions coupled with fuels conditions and weather conditions,” Bailey said. “Unfortunately, 90 percent of our fires in the Tahoe basin are human caused, and that’s mostly campfire related.”
Fireworks and smoking were also leading contributors last year, he said.
“In the Lake Tahoe Basin, all of the fire agencies, we all work so closely together that we have a really strong response and a really strong working relationship,” Bailey said. “That definitely contributes to our high success rate of managing these fires that start out small.”
He said that the Forest Service has been busy clearing fuels, like dead trees and grasses that create a wildfire risk, and educating the public since June is Wildfire Awareness Month. However, he also said he expects Nevada to have a busy season due to all of the grasses that have sprouted up.
Bailey said that after the big winter of 1983, when he was working as a hotshot firefighter, he spent most of the season in Nevada just because there was so much grass that had sprung up, creating more wildfire fuel.
North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Michael Schwartz said he also expects a later start to the fire season, depending on the amount of moisture the region gets in the next month or so.
“I think we’ll have a more concentrated and bigger fire season,” he said.
Schwartz said that regionally, there’s already a huge crop of grass and it’s drying out very quickly.
“It’s been a lot of years since we’ve seen this kind of growth,” he said. “Locally, I think we’re concerned that a lot of the people who’ve been dealing with this historically have moved on so we want to make sure that the new folks are equipped to deal with this.”
“Those of us that have been around here for a long time are trying to prepare new people.”
According to the most recent Forest Service survey, more than 102 million trees on 7.7 acres of drought-stricken forest in California have died since 2010. But although the drought is over, tree mortality remains a concern.
“The fact that we got all this moisture is not going to effect tree mortality,” Schwartz said. “We’ve been through this before with the last big winter. This is not the first rodeo.”
Schwartz said the number of dead trees remain a concern for wildfire, so fire management agencies across state, federal and local levels are still working hard to remove the trees.
“On the local level, we have a pretty aggressive chipping program.” he said. “With all the discussion of heavy precipitation, we still need people to understand that they need to prepare.”
Homeowners should be proactive in creating defensible space around their homes to protect their own property. In California, state law mandates that building owners clear 30 to 100 feet of defensible space around structures.
For information about defensible space inspections, tree removal and chipping, visit ntfire.net/defensible-space-chipping. For more information on living with wildfire, visit tahoe.livingwithfire.info/.
Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @akrhoades.