‘It’s exactly the same’: Truckee official talks about fire danger locals face
As the Caldor Fire continues to impact residents of South Lake Tahoe, the chance of a similar incident on the other side of the lake and in Truckee remains an ongoing threat to the community.
“It’s exactly the same,” said Truckee Fire Protection District Fire Chief Bill Seline. “We’re in a very similar forest to Caldor and the Dixie Fire. The fires in both those areas are burning in similar elevations and climates that we have here in Truckee. It makes us concerned. Fires can burn significantly in those conditions, and we see those same conditions here.”
The Caldor Fire, which was 29% contained as of Friday morning, has now burned more than 210,000 acres, destroyed 857 structures, and displaced thousands of the area’s residents. Seline said it’s unlikely the fire moves into the Truckee Basin. Due to prevailing winds, fires in the region tend to burn from southwest to the northeast.
“Of course, the fire changes when the wind changes directions, but those tend to happen for short periods of time,” said Seline.
The Caldor Fire, according to Seline, would need to have southern winds for several days to push it north toward the lake.
“It’s not impossible, but we think it’s unlikely at this point,” added Seline.
With red flag conditions earlier this week, Seline said the district didn’t send out any resources to fires around the region, but with the red flag event ending Thursday, Truckee Fire sent an engine to South Lake Tahoe to help with the Caldor Fire.
On Tuesday, crews fought in South Tahoe to save homes in Meyers, where the fire burned right up to houses along Apache Avenue. Justine Jenkins, a 14-year resident of Meyers, said she’s never seen anything like the Caldor Fire.
“This fire is a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and harder to manage,” she said.
After hearing from those in the Meyers area and from friends working as firefighters, Jenkins made the decision to evacuate her home a week ahead of mandatory evacuations, which have affected tens of thousands of residents in the area.
“There were a lot of factors that made me believe I should leave,” she said.
As of Thursday, mandatory evacuation orders stretched to Tahoma on the West Shore to Stateline. Michie Parsons, 20, of Stateline, grew up in Tahoe, and said she vaguely remembers the Angora Fire in 2007, but never expected a fire like the one currently being fought.
“I remember hearing people talk about it, but this is something that’s so surreal to me because I never thought in South Lake Tahoe something like this would be such a problem,” she said. “Tahoe has always been my home. That place to me was always going to be there. Now it’s questionable. It’s very scary.”
Parsons and her uncle, James Landry, were evacuated from Stateline on Monday.
“I’m OK. We’re OK, but there are people out there that really, really need some help,” said Landry. “People have been so caring. That’s what’s really struck me. To see the people, the community come together like the way they are is really amazing.”
On Thursday, evacuation orders for residents in areas of North Camino and Pollock Pines had evacuation orders downgraded. In order for residents to be allowed to return to their homes, downed trees must be removed, critical infrastructure like water and power needs to be working, and roads need to be cleared of fire equipment and hoses.
“We are unified in this measure to make sure that we get you guys back home as quickly as we can, but we want to do it in a safe manner,” said Cal Fire law enforcement liaison Eric Lee during a Wednesday update.
For those experiencing mandatory evacuations, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team is asking residents not to leave irrigation, garden hoses, and sprinklers actively running. Local utility districts and water purveyors are experiencing draw downs in the water supplies since evacuation warnings and orders went into effect, potentially affecting water flow for fire fighters. The fuels and fires team said measures like spraying down roofs and vegetation are ineffective as they’ll dry relatively quickly, and that evacuation preparedness efforts are better spent on removing combustible material away from homes.
“Hardening homes to ember intrusion is one of the most effective preparedness efforts residents can take to protect their homes in a wildfire,” said North Tahoe Fire Chief Steve Leighton in a news release. “We ask that you turn off any outdoor irrigation, roof sprinklers or hoses before you evacuate to ensure our firefighters have ample water and enough water pressure to safely fight the fire. Clear roofs of pine needles and leaf litter, remove combustible decorations, furniture and cushions from decks, and clear away any other combustible material to help prevent homes from catching fire.”
Ember vulnerabilities cause nearly 90% of homes to burn in a wildfire, whereas the flame front or surface fires are responsible for only around 10% of homes lost to wildfire. Maintaining defensible space and having separation between flammable fuels, along with hardening homes to ember intrusion, are the best preparations residents can take prior to evacuating homes.
In Truckee, a Wildfire Protection Measure will be in front of voters, along with the state’s recall election. Measure T would tax property owners in the Truckee Fire Protection District $179 a year to provide roughly $3.7 annually for wildfire prevention and mitigation. The measure would fund removal of dry brush, dead trees, and other fire hazards, provide homeowners with inexpensive options for green waste disposal, add firebreaks, support defensible space around homes, and improve emergency evacuation and warning systems.
“This is what we’re talking about — to help reduce the severity of fire in and around the community,” said Seline. “The way you do that is you reduce fuels. It’s the only thing we can control. You can’t control the weather or the way fires start, but we can reduce the fuel load, so that when a fire ever does get to Truckee, firefighters will be able to protect homes, and structures, and people.”
In the event of an evacuation, a wildfire evacuation checklist can be found at http://www.tahoelivingwithfire.com.
“There’s really only two things that are going to change,” Seline said. “Either, there’s a massive fuels reduction program over many years that makes a difference, or we’re going to continue to see significant fires like this.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2643
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Truckee residents overwhelmingly voted for Measure T during Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election.