Officials: Forest thinning averted further fire disaster | SierraSun.com

Officials: Forest thinning averted further fire disaster

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

Alex Close/Sierra SunA home is fully engulfed by the Washoe Fire on Saturday.

The Washoe Fire on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore consumed six structures and less than 20 acres Saturday, but officials say that if not for the immediate response of fire personnel, a history of fuels reduction and effective defensible space, it could have been a lot worse.

“The potential was there for a much bigger incident, absolutely,” said North Tahoe Fire Protection District spokesman Ed Miller in a phone interview with the Sierra Sun.

“I think for one thing, the wind died down a little bit. But also the rapid response by an enormous amount of resources. And to have air attack,” he said.

With wind gusts upward of 30 miles per hour and temperatures peaking near 80 degrees, the conditions were perfect to fuel another catastrophic wildfire, less than two months after the devastating Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe.

Amidst smoke plumes and dozens of smoldering ground fires Saturday evening, North Tahoe Fire Protection District firefighter Dirk Schoonmaker agreed that if not for recent fuels reduction work, the neighborhood around Tahoe Woods could have been further devastated.

“If it hadn’t been [for logging], we would have had a lot worse problems,” Schoonmaker said.

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Meeks Bay Fire Protection District Chief John Pang said that well-executed mutual aid was key, but agreed that recent forest thinning prevented the further spread of wildfire.

In 2005 the U.S. Forest Service completed a fuels reduction project in more than 150 acres between Tahoe Woods and Granlibakken, thinning fuels both mechanically and by hand, said U.S. Forest Service fuels battalion chief John Washington.

“It needed it … like every other neighborhood/subdivision in Tahoe needs it,” Washington said.

“If we hadn’t treated that area we’d still be chasing it,” he added.

Part of the forest thinning included use of a masticator ” a grinder on the end of a large excavator to shred fuels so there are fewer burn piles, Pang said.

Mechanical fuels work is done on slopes less than 30 percent, he said. For anything steeper they rely on hand crews.

Fortunately the Washoe incident didn’t turn into the Angora fire, thanks in most part to luck, Washington said.

“It was set up just like the Angora, except we caught it at just 20 acres ” pure luck,” he said.

Unlike the Angora fire, North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw said that early reporting of flames also contributed to early containment. But he said that there were additional challenges, such as topography, that made the Washoe fire particularly risky.

“I’m sickened by the fact that it happened … but the winds, narrow roads and water supply made it hard,” said Whitelaw.

Former Washoe Way residents Paul Brunk and Emily Robbins were the second to lose their home in Saturday’s fire.

While they did walk away unscathed, they’re left with nothing but the clothes on their back and just two of their three pets.

“We had no insurance, we lost everything ” dirt bikes, snowmobiles, clothes, photos. When I got to the fire all I had on was board shorts ” no T-shirt, no nothing,” Brunk said.

But the couple is keeping their spirits up.

“We moved here from North Carolina to live the dream. All we had was a car, and that’s all we have now ” along with our friends and family. We’re going to make it. We just hope we can find our cat,” Brunk said.

The fire’s cause is still unknown and North Tahoe Fire officials are investigating the scene.

If there are any lessons to be learned, fire personnel continue to stress the importance of defensible space.

“It gives firefighters a place to start from,” Washington said.

Officials continue to mourn the loss of the five homes along with the residents and homeowners.

“For those people that lost their residences, we all take that personally. I could go to tears,” Whitelaw said.