Not if, but when: Lake Tahoe fire season could be busy amid drought | SierraSun.com

Not if, but when: Lake Tahoe fire season could be busy amid drought

Margaret Moran mmoran@sierrasun.com
A West Shore resident fights flames during the August 2007 Washoe Fire. The blaze is a large reminder of how quickly a wildfire can get out of control amid dry conditions
File photo |

Public services

For information on wildland fire prevention services such as defensible space inspections and curbside chipping, contact your local fire district or department:

Truckee Fire Protection District: 530-582-7850, truckeefire.org

North Tahoe Fire Protection District: 530-583-6913, ntfire.net

Meeks Bay Fire Protection District: 530-525-7548, meeksbayfire.com

Squaw Valley Fire Department: 530-583-6111, svpsd.org/svfd/fire

Northstar Fire Department: 530-562-1212, northstarcsd.com/firecontact

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Living with fire

A credible resource for learning about defensible space and wildfire prevention specific to the Truckee-Tahoe region is the Living With Fire program, which began in 1997.

Ed Smith and Paul Tueller, of the University of Nevada, Reno, and Fire Chief Loren Enstaad of the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators, worked with firefighting organizations from the Lake Tahoe Basin to develop a set of consistent wildfire threat reduction recommendations.

Today, Living With Fire is a collaborative effort involving many organizations and is managed by University of California Cooperative Extension and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Visit tahoe.livingwithfire.info to learn more.

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Since the area’s drought-aided dry conditions are prime for an active wildfire season, officials are touting preventive measures to stop fires before they start.

“The worry is fuel sources are already dry, so if it’s windy with low humidity, a fire has a good possibility of getting big in a hurry,” said Dave Zaski, spokesperson for North Tahoe Fire Protection District, which covers the North and West shores of Lake Tahoe.

Roughly 90 percent of all Californian wildfires are caused by people, according to the One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire campaign.

Residents can look no further than their own backyard for hard proof of that statistic. For instance, the devastating Angora Fire in June-July 2007 that charred 3,100 acres, destroyed 254 homes and reportedly caused $141 million in damage in South Lake Tahoe started from an illegal campfire.

Closer to home, the Washoe Fire in August 2007 that scorched 20 acres and destroyed five homes near Tahoe City started from a propane barbecue.

“We really need to eliminate as many potential ignition sources as possible,” Pete Bansen, Squaw Valley Fire Department chief, said this week.

Some ways to do so include making sure campfires are completely out and cold to the touch (if they are permitted at all); being careful and watchful of open flames from barbecues, fire pits and open burning (when allowed); properly disposing cigarettes in an enclosed container; and performing defensible space, said Paul Spencer, spokesperson for Truckee Fire Protection District.

Defensible space is the buffer between a structure and an oncoming wildfire where the vegetation has been modified to reduce fire threat.

“It’s not a one-time job,” Bansen said. “It’s an ongoing process. You have to stay on top of it all summer. Do it early and often this year.”

Within a defensible space zone, dead vegetation such as trees, shrubs, branches, leaves and needles have been removed. In addition, clumps of shrubs have been trimmed or removed to create separation, while low tree branches have been cut.

“It’s always important, but in a year like this, it’s more important because the risk (of fire) is so much higher,” Bansen said.

Zaski added: “We could have a big wildfire now because of the drought. Everything is lined up.”

Since the start of the year, local fire districts have responded to several wildfires either in their own coverage area or in neighboring districts.

“It is unusual, but with the lack of moisture and some of the strange weather events, it is to be expected,” Spencer said.

Statewide, there have been 967 fires, burning 4,083 acres since the start of the year, according to Calfire. That’s up from the same time last year, with 931 fires and 2,593 acres burned.

“In a year like this, in California, it’s not a matter of if, but when and where fires will occur,” Bansen said.

Fire officials are encouraging the public to call 911 or a local fire district immediately if they see smoke, since early response will be key amid this year’s dry conditions.

“Once you get ignition in the conditions we have now and will experience, it’s much easier to get larger fires quicker,” Bansen said.