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Wildland fires: Making sense of it all

Bryce E. Keller
Truckee Fire Protection District Chief

The catastrophic “Angora Fire” in South Lake Tahoe resulting in the loss of 229 homes has re-ignited age-old controversies and the need for all to accept personal responsibility.

The issues are not new; finger pointing has begun and many are quick to assign blame and shift responsibilities to others.

It’s easy to back-seat drive and debate whether the actions and policies of fire agencies and land-use agencies involved were appropriate; hindsight is a wonderful thing. We must allow those involved to complete their post-incident reports. I’m confident many lessons will be learned.



Unfortunately, many of the lessons won’t be new. Time and time again large damaging fires ravage the Western states and post-incident reports identify contributing factors, errors and omissions that need to be addressed to reduce the risk of such incidents occurring in the future.

But people and public agencies have short memories. The lessons learned are soon forgotten and solutions never fully implemented. The reports and lessons learned sit on a shelf and collect dust as administrators come and go. Often there are short-term, knee-jerk reactions by people and agencies without a commitment to long-term solutions.



Wildfires in the West are not new and they are certainly not new to our communities. People have chosen to live in the rural-urban wildland intermix. Therefore they must accept the fact that there are risks involved and that they have responsibility to be part of the solution.

As a result of the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, the Bates Bill (337) was passed in 1992 requiring Cal Fire to work with local governments to identify high fire hazard severity zones throughout each county in the state and to require disclosure to prospective purchasers of property in these areas. Cal Fire is in the midst of a massive project gathering current data for an updated fire hazard severity zone-mapping project.

I’m tired of hearing excuses as to why people can’t and don’t maintain defensible space on their properties. If you want to reference “Factors Affecting Property Owner’s Decisions About Defensible Space” see our Web site http://www.truckeefire.org and go to sub link safety information then defensible space.

I’ll be the first one to tell you that maintaining defensible space is no guarantee your home will survive a wildfire. However, it will dramatically increase the odds of you and your property escaping the wrath of an advancing fire.

As I assisted fire engine companies last Sunday evening on the fire line I was reminded how wildfire doesn’t discriminate between homes. However, homes that were spared generally showed some evidence of defensible space and pride of ownership.

Nowhere in the world is there a better firefighting system prepared to deal with large and multiple wildfires than in California. Through a complex system of cooperative agreements tempered by experience, the fire protection system has evolved. Federal, state, and local resources work cooperatively on an ongoing basis to be sure the responses to un-wanted fires are timely and appropriate. The fire agencies have and are continuing to do their part in maintaining cooperative agreements, working together on responses, training, fuels reduction projects, prevention and fire safe community planning.

These efforts aren’t enough; everyone in the community has a role to play in preventing wildfires. We all need to take responsibility. Home and landowners must do their part. You’re key to a fire-safe community.

Again, the wildfire problem in the West isn’t getting any better. We have known that for years. Fire agencies at all levels of government continue to partner to deliver the best services possible.

However, we’re not in it alone. Again, become part of the solution, as a homeowner/landowner you must do your part. Don’t look to the government to do your work for you. Take responsibility for your property. Create defensible space. It’s the one thing that you have control over.

Now, having said this, don’t go crazy. Take a long-term approach of maintenance; develop a long-term strategy to get your property to a “fire safe” maintenance level.

Some may ask what’s our community doing to reduce the risk of large damaging fires. On the prevention side the Tahoe National Forest, like other forests, have ongoing fuels reduction projects in our surrounding areas that not only reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire but also enhances forest health. One such project is along Alder Creek Road. The Fire District has partnered with the Town of Truckee on strategic roadside fuels reduction projects.

The Fire District along with Cal Fire and other community associations have partnered to offer no-cost, curbside chipping programs to assist homeowners in maintaining defensible space.

Tahoe Donner and Glenshire homeowners associations have been proactive by reducing fuel loading in common areas and supporting defensible space efforts. Our prevention bureau conducts outreach programs to inform and educate all on responsibilities of living in rural areas.

Most importantly, many ” but not all ” homeowners are creating and maintaining defensible space.

The Fire District and homeowner’s associations offer many resident and landowner assistance programs to help maintain and dispose of unwanted brush, small trees and limb wood. Free curbside chipping is offered in most communities.

For fire prevention and defensible space assistance information within Truckee Fire Protection District call 582-7850 or view http://www.truckeefire.org/

For those that continue to do their part, the community and I thank you for being fire safe. For those of you that don’t heed the repeated warnings and put you’re loved ones, neighbors, property, and the community at risk, please “get fired-up” and focus on the task at hand before it is too late.

Be fire safe, create and maintain defensible space.


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