Why Tahoe gets so much smoke | SierraSun.com

Why Tahoe gets so much smoke

Hannah Jones
Smoke from the Rim and American fires sits heavily over Lake Tahoe in 2013. With a regular occurrence of wildfires in California coupled with wind patterns smoke is likely to fill up the Tahoe Basin.
Sierra Sun file photo

The reason the Tahoe area gets heavy amounts of smoke during wildfire season is fairly simple according to Neil Lareau, assistant professor of physics University of Nevada, Reno.

With a regular occurrence of wildfires in California coupled with wind patterns smoke is likely to fill up the Tahoe Basin.

“It’s all about where the smoke originates and where the wind is going to take it,” Lareau said during a presentation at Mountain Minds Monday hosted by Tahoe Silicon Mountain.

According to Lareau the Washoe Zephyr wind system, which flows over western Nevada, may have a more adverse effect as far as drawing more smoke into the Tahoe basin, than other wind systems.

“Washoe Zephyr is a thermally driven wind system. It depends on the daytime heating of the atmosphere,” he said. “When it gets hot, it draws in air from lower elevations.”

Due to Nevada’s high temperatures, more air, or smoke in the case of wildfires, is pulled higher into the atmosphere.

“What’s a little less common with Washoe Zephyr is that it gets so hot in Nevada that instead of the winds just converging up to the mountain slopes it’ll keep going,” said Lareau.

While he classified this wind system as atypical, he said new tools are being developed that can predict the smoke and prepare for its impacts.

Using a weather prediction model, coupled with a fire model, scientists have been able to make better predictions of where the smoke will travel and how dense it will be in some areas.

“This lets us develop better and better forecasts for where the smoke is going to end up,” said Lareau.

While this new system offers more solutions Lareau said the new models are based off assumptions and still “come with a lot of caveats.”

One way Lareau and his team are collecting data on wildfire smoke is through a project called RaDFIRE, The Rapid Deployments to Wildfires Experiment. Throughout the summers of 2014 to 2016 they would chase down fires and gather data using similar instruments used to study tornadoes.

Lareau said they could use the data to learn more about the structure of smoke and wind patterns.

“It can paint a picture of the wind flow around these wildfires,” he said. However, he added,“solving the smoke problem is a long ways off.”

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or hjones@sierrasun.com.

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.