Mark Twain officially honored for setting Lake Tahoe’s ‘first prescribed burn’
The Truckee-Tahoe region can boast some of the most dramatic historical events in the Far West, including the opening of the California Trail, the Donner Party, and the building of the transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass.
Another notable event was the surprising transformation of Sam Clemens, a young, ex-river boat pilot from Missouri, who found his true calling as Mark Twain, as he began his career as one of America’s most revered writers and humorists.
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — “The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled.”
Those were the words famous American author and humorist Mark Twain penned in his novel “Roughing It” to describe a wildfire he started in the Lake Tahoe Basin in 1861.
But it was an account that was embellished, as revealed by Twain impressionist McAvoy Layne during a presentation last Friday in the Incline Village and Crystal Bay Historical Society’s Mark Twain room.
“What I started was a floor fire, but a floor fire would not sell a book,” Layne said with a twang in his voice. “So in ‘Roughing It,’ I made it a wildfire, replete with this illustration of my friend John Kinney and I diving into the lake to save our skins and the fire leaping at our heals. I regret that now.”
Back then, low intensity burns in the basin occurred on a regular basis — a practice that is being reintroduced to the area, said North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Mike Brown.
“What we are trying to do throughout the entire Tahoe Basin is create an environment where we can work with fire,” he said at Friday’s presentation. “Meaning, each year we try to do prescribed fires. If Mother Nature allows us, we introduce fire back into the fire, back into our community.
“ … It’s also something that protects us from that threat of catastrophic fire. Keep them on the ground, so they don’t get into trees and become a crown fire where we can’t control them.”
In recognition of the fire Twain set, Brown awarded Layne, an Incline Village resident, with a plaque for setting “the first prescribed burn” in the Tahoe Basin, as a crowd of roughly 20 individuals.
Among those in attendance was Incline Village resident Ronda Tycer, who found the scenario humorous.
“The most amusing twist on what is otherwise considered one of Mark Twain’s biggest mistakes in the area,” she said. “Having Mike Brown say it was the first prescribed burn in the area has sort of lifted it back up to some level of humor.”
Emulating the humorist, complete with his trademark white suit and bushy hair and bushy mustache, Layne accepted the award with delight.
“I can live for a month on a compliment like this, without food,” he said, while in character. “We all love compliments. Humorists, congressmen, burglars, all of us in the trade, but this beats all.”
Despite Twain being honored for starting a fire, local officials are urging people to eliminate as many potential ignition sources as possible, especially amid Tahoe-Truckee’s dry conditions.
Layne touched on the destructive nature of fire Friday with the mention of the 2007 Angora Fire, which charred 3,100 acres, destroyed 254 homes and reportedly caused $141 million in damage in South Lake Tahoe.
While the Angora Fire more accurately matches Twain’s description of the blaze he started, it’s a far cry from what he ignited and basin burns of his time.
“Now you know the truth,” Layne said. “Back then, every five to 10 years a low grade fire crept through this conifer forest even animals were able to outrun it. Now I have my recognition.”
For the last 27 years or so, Layne has performed as Mark Twain more than 4,000 times, including for A&E’s Mark Twain biography and in the Discovery Channel’s Award winning documentary, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Learn more at ghostoftwain.com.
The Mark Twain room is located in the Incline Village and Crystal Bay Historical Society museum inside the Starbucks building at the corner of Village Boulevard and Highway 28. Visit tahoehistory.org to learn more.