Recent blazes caused by illegal fire practices | SierraSun.com
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Recent blazes caused by illegal fire practices

Renee Shadforth

A signal fire allegedly set by a hunter has set thousands of acres ablaze in Southern California, and other fires, set by an unknown cause at this point, rage on.

“What Southern California is going through right now could have very easily happened in Tahoe Donner,” said Jeff McCaskill, a United States Forestry Service fire prevention technician.

There were four known arsons in the Truckee area just last week. One was started by juveniles at the Truckee Recreation Center and was controlled before it got out of hand, according to Truckee Police Department reports. Three were illegal campfires.

One of the illegal campfires, set near the Vista Point exit, led to the 100-acre Donner Fire that threatened the Tahoe Donner subdivision.

The Martis and Gap fires of 2001 were also sparked by illegal or unattended campfires; in other words, they were set at the hand of a human.

There are several variables that saved Tahoe Donner from the large-scale conflagration occurring in Southern California. However, there is one thing these fires have in common that could have been controlled from the beginning, and it’s unsafe fire practices.

Gene Welch, public safety and information officer for the Truckee Fire Protection District, said these fire hazards usually occur because of neglect or lack of education.

“A lot of people believe you can merely allow a campfire to burn out – that’s not the case,” Welch said. “Never leave a campfire unattended – even a cooking fire.”

Welch suggested people take a bucket and shovel any time they go into the backcountry. Many large-scale wildfires have started when people get stuck in the backcountry, need a fire for warmth and have no means to put out the fire.

“You should always be prepared to spend the night and prepared for a change in weather,” Welch said.

Fire restrictions have been in effect since mid-summer, which means no campfires, smoking, fireworks or welding are allowed on forest service land.

When there are no fire restrictions, people can get free campfire permits from the forest service. Fires are also legal in open campgrounds, unless it is stipulated otherwise.

Lightning also causes flare-ups in the Sierra Nevada, but the forest service monitors the horizon north and south of Martis Peak during lightning storms and it’s easier to locate the origin of a fire. Those fires are usually tended to more quickly.

Saving your home, or clearcutting?

During the Donner Fire, a Tahoe Donner man approached Welch with a chain saw and said he was ready to cut down the trees around his house.

“Some people wait until the fire gets too close and then they’ll take action,” Welch said.

After a fire threatens homes, there tends to be a surge of homeowners clearing defensible space around their property, Welch said.

Also, in a situation where many homes are threatened, fire crews might bypass a home that is overgrown with trees and brush.

“Rather than waste efforts on [a structure] that can’t be saved, crews will go on to one that can be saved,” Welch said.

So, what stops homeowners from clearing defensible space?

“People misinterpret ‘defensible space’ to mean ‘clearcutting,'” he said. “The property can still remain attractive without cutting everything down.”

Also, people should hook up a garden hose to their home and a ladder to the roof, Welch said. In the case of a wildland fire, crews try to remain mobile, so they try not to hook up to hydrants or set up their engine ladders.

For more information on campfire safety and the forest service, call 587-3558. For more information on defensible space, call Gene Welch at the Truckee Fire Protection District at 582-7635.


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