‘It’s counterintuitive’: State Parks, local fire district policies still not aligned

Senate Bill 1012 is in appropriations committee working its way to the governor’s desk

A fire ring in Emerald Bay State Park campground.
Bill Rozak/Sierra Sun

MEEKS BAY, Calif. – While many look forward to the warmer months of the year, a lot of Lake Tahoe residents feel scorned by the past few summers. 

For the past several years, smoke has engulfed Tahoe’s fresh, alpine air — a telltale sign that another significant wildfire season is here.    

Fire districts throughout the Tahoe Basin are on the same page, consistently raising awareness and concern for fire safety to both locals and visitors, as well as keeping up with fire conditions to determine safety. However, California State Parks’ policies do not align with Tahoe’s local fire districts’ regulations.  

“All the fire districts around Lake Tahoe, including Northstar, Truckee, and Olympic Valley, have a solid fuel burn ban, meaning that you cannot burn firewood or charcoal outdoors,” said Board President of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District Ed Miller. “When there are red flag conditions in place, there is no burning outdoors, not even propane. Currently, state parks are allowing campfires to registered guests at their campgrounds.”  

Although the policies between state parks and local fire districts are not in agreement, earlier this year it was proposed that the policies between both entities align together through Senate Bill 1012. The new bill was introduced into the California Senate to require a unit of the state park system to follow and enforce the rules relating to open fires that are at least as restrictive as the rules adopted by a local fire department or fire protection districts. 

“The Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chief’s Association voted to support SB 1012 to align fire restrictions consistently across the region because fires do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries,” North Tahoe Fire Protection District Public Information Officer Erin Holland said. “When state parks are embedded within our communities, local fire district resources are the responding agency should an emergency take place in a park, and we care about the safety of our visitors just like we care about the safety of our residents.” 

Local fire districts have sought out all points of contact in the California State Parks system to try and reign in control on this issue, and it was hoped that state parks would align regulations this year, however Miller is not optimistic that Tahoe communities will see reformative change during this season.  

The entrance to Sugar Pine State Park.
Rob Galloway/Sierra Sun

“At this point there’s nothing that the local fire districts can do, we’ve exhausted all of our options,” Miller said. “SB 1012 is in the appropriations committee now working its way through to the governor’s desk, and that will require state parks to follow the regulations that are set forth by the local fire districts. That bill will have no effect on this summer, and the governor could veto the bill, we really have no idea what’s next.”  

While the bill will not be in effect this season, Tahoe’s local fire districts are still avidly working towards raising fire awareness around the lake.  

There has been debate between local fire districts and state parks on what is fire-safe and what is not. While the campfires that are currently allowed are regulated within state parks land, Douglas Johnson, information officer for California State Parks, assures that the fires that are allowed while on state park land are monitored and managed.  

“Campfires in state parks are regulated through the California Code of Regulations,” Johnson said. “In this code of regulations, all fires in state parks are prohibited except camp stoves or fire rings provided and designated by state parks.”

Johnson continued by stating that while state park campgrounds are allowed to have fire rings and camp stoves, they still are mindful and fire-aware throughout the summer season to keep regulations current for campers and visitors.  

“When the department makes a finding of extreme fire hazard for a park unit, fire prohibition is expanded to all wood and charcoal fires,” Johnson said. “In this case, typically portable gas stoves are still allowed in campgrounds under these extreme fire hazard restrictions.” 

While California State Parks assures that these fire rings are regulated and managed, the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District isn’t easily convinced by this. 

The Meeks Bay Fire Protection District.
Rob Galloway/Sierra Sun

“We don’t expect that they should always have someone around constantly watching, but we do feel that it’s counterintuitive to have smoke and fire coming up from 100-plus campsites during high fire season,” Miller said. “We’ve made the request to California State Parks’ district superintendent, asking why it’s necessary to have these fires, and have gotten no further response other than them saying ‘it’s legal and feel that it’s safe.’” 

This issue is of great concern, particularly to residents nearby. According to Miller, in neighboring communities such as Tahoma, campfire embers “trip away” frequently from campers, creating even more potential for fire threat.  

“State parks claim that fires never escape the fire rings and that there’s never been a fire outside of the state park caused by a fire within a state park,” Miller said. “We in fact have documented evidence of a fire escaping the fire ring last year at Sugar Pine Point State Park and setting fire to the wood stack sitting next to the fire ring.”

While disagreement on regulations between the two entities is apparent, communication between state parks and local districts remains consistent so both are fully aware of fire conditions, according to Johnson. 

“The Sierra District of California State Parks is working to achieve greater consistency with local fire restrictions and strengthen coordination efforts with local fire districts regarding fire restrictions and messaging,” Johnson said. “When feasible, district staff will regularly participate in local fire district board meetings to discuss current and planned fire restrictions and the rationale behind them.”  

Reflecting on the previous effects that fires have had on Tahoe’s communities, being in an uncertain place during the high-fire season is troubling for many locals and fire staff.  

“I’ve been with Meeks Bay Fire Protection District for 40 years, so I’m knowledgeable about what’s going on, but that doesn’t make me any less scared or traumatized by this ongoing issue and wildfires being a threat to Tahoe communities,” Miller said. “I think waking up to that smell of smoke brings us all back to the uncertain times during last year, and that’s something I don’t think any of us want to relive.” 

Tahoe’s fire districts are consistently advocating for surrounding communities, and the state parks are well-loved by locals, and Miller states that he just wants state parks to understand the feelings of the community members. 

To support the universal regulations amongst state parks and local fire districts, community members are encouraged to support the upcoming Senate Bill 1012 by contacting the governor as well as Senator Steve Glazer (D-Calif.) and Senator Jim Nielsen (R-Calif.).

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