Interchange Fire’s close call | SierraSun.com

Interchange Fire’s close call

Sierra Sun Staff reports

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunA Washington Ridge Hand Crew walks the fire line during the Interchange Fire in Tahoe Donner Wednesday.

Helicopters, airtankers and ground crews Wednesday afternoon managed to beat down a wildfire that started at two acres and grew to 120 in a matter of hours before reaching the edges of the sprawling Tahoe Donner subdivision.

No structures were lost by late afternoon, but the nerves of area residents were still raw after Saturday’s Washoe Fire near Tahoe City destroyed five homes, and the Angora Fire in late June that charred 3,072 acres and destroyed 254 homes in South Lake Tahoe.

Officials said the fire was 50 percent contained as of 6 p.m. Wednesday. One-hundred percent containment was achieved at 10 p.m., the Associated Press reported.

The Interchange Fire started at approximately 1:50 p.m. Wednesday near the Donner Lake interchange at Interstate 80. The highway’s westbound lanes were

initially closed due to a downed powerline and the resulting fire.

A Truckee Donner Public Utility District employee said a tree-trimming crew working for Sierra Pacific Power on that utility’s lines dropped a limb on a wire, which likely sparked the blaze.

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While the fire threatened the 6,000-home Tahoe Donner subdivision, no evacuations were ordered. Truckee police did close the subdivision to residents only after initial reports of spectators driving into the area to view the fire.

Four helicopters and six airtankers, along with 35 to 50 pieces of equipment and 300 firefighters, battled the blaze, according to Calfire’s JoAnn Cartoscelli.

The fire, meanwhile, slowed when it ran into an area previously burned above Negro Canyon. Several fires have erupted in the canyon area over the last five decades, including the Donner Fire in 2003 and the Donner Ridge Fire of 1960, which burned from the Donner Lake interchange through what is now Tahoe Donner.

Tahoe Donner has an in-house forester, Bill Houdyschell, who uses a computer-aided, fuels-reduction plan to clear brush fields left by the Donner Ridge Fire. Snowbush, manzanita and mountain whitethorn allow wildfires to spread more quickly.

The 2003 Donner Fire, which burned up the hill from the Vista Point offramp on I-80 to the ridge near Skislope Way, was contained once it reached the Tahoe Donner fuel break and before it threatened homes in the area.

The Tahoe Donner fuels-reduction program consists of four main components that Houdyschell carries out with up to a dozen seasonal employees:

– Thinning smaller trees from large timber stands within Tahoe Donner and on the hillside between the subdivision and the freeway.

– Going through the area with machines that chip all the brush and shrubs on the ground and then blow the chips back onto the ground where the material poses a lesser fire risk.

– Using bulldozers to clear brush from fire-prone areas and then burning it in a controlled manner during favorable weather conditions.

– Working with Tahoe Donner homeowners to help them make their own properties as fire-safe as possible with programs such as free chipping of brush and other yard waste that may pose a fire danger, free fire-safety assessments and the enforcement of fire safety codes as they pertain to vacant lots adjacent to area homes.

For the last several years, the Tahoe Donner program has operated with an annual budget of close to $500,000, paid for by property owners in the subdivision. In addition, the forestry department has recently received two grants from the Calfire for fire-suppression projects in areas that border government-owned lands.