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Partnering to reduce wildfire risk in Lake Tahoe Basin (Opinion)

Jason Vasques

The Caldor Fire was a reminder to our community that wildfires have and will continue to threaten the Lake Tahoe Basin. Since then, the California Tahoe Conservancy has received over four times the usual number of calls and emails about our open space lots. Most people contacting us have questions about wildfire risk and dead or dying trees. 

The good news is that since the Caldor Fire, we have gained new resources to ramp up forestry work on our properties and to support our partners’ forest management projects. Together, we are taking steps that will make Tahoe forests more resilient to climate change while reducing wildfire risk to our communities. 

In November, the city of South Lake Tahoe and the Conservancy formalized our shared commitment to reduce wildfire risk. Under our new memorandum of understanding, we are establishing mutual approaches for fuels reductions, land management, and defensible space activities on public and private land within city limits. This agreement opens the door to further coordination, including joint planning for projects, sharing resources, and helping speed up work citywide to reduce wildfire risk to residents and visitors. 

The Conservancy also cooperates under a Good Neighbor Agreement with the USDA Forest Service. Together with our federal partners, we are planning and implementing projects to reduce hazardous fuels on each other’s lands. Now, when our staff marks project boundary lines for future thinning in a neighborhood, in addition to the Conservancy open space lots, we include National Forest lots as well. For example, in the coming years, we expect to treat all the state and federally owned open space lots in South Lake Tahoe’s Gardner Mountain and Tahoe Island neighborhoods as part of a single, comprehensive fuel reduction project. 

The Conservancy and our partners are putting the increased state and federal wildfire funding to work. Supported by the state of California’s increased support for wildfire and climate resilience, the Conservancy has provided $5.6 million in grants to our federal and local partners in recent months. These grants provide funding to update critical plans to reduce wildfire danger to Tahoe communities, create new plans to reduce fire risk to sewer and water infrastructure, and to address public safety risks and replant trees in areas damaged by the Caldor Fire. 

To be sure, wildfire continues to pose a major threat to Tahoe communities, and forest habitat in the basin is in a tenuous position. The extended effects of drought, high temperatures, and unnaturally dense forests — the result of a century of fire suppression — and climate change are contributing factors in a tree die-off across the Sierra Nevada. It will take years of significant work, including in our neighborhoods and across the Basin landscape, to reduce hazardous fuels and ensure that forests in the basin are resilient to wildfire, drought, and insect and disease outbreaks. As climate change continues to amplify such threats, we must accelerate this work. 

Fortunately, Tahoe has an established team and a plan. The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team — comprising 21 federal, tribal, state, and local conservation, land management, and fire agencies — developed the Lake Tahoe Basin Forest Action Plan, which lays out strategies to expand the pace and scale of forest restoration within Tahoe communities and across the Basin landscape. Together, TFFT partners are making progress on these strategies, progress that has accelerated in the wake of the Caldor Fire. There is also a role for you.

Visit http://www.tahoelivingwithfire.com to get prepared, get informed, and get involved in efforts to help your community prepare for wildfire.

Jason Vasques is executive director for California Tahoe Conservancy.


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