By Joanne S. Marchetta

The snow and colder weather setting in across the Tahoe Basin is a welcome gift for those actively managing the stubborn, two-month-old Caldor Fire. While containment lines are no longer being threatened, the extreme drought conditions that helped the fire consume more than 220,000 acres will keep the fire active until a heavier snow or rain soaks through. As welcome as that will be for the fire, it also has us bracing for potential post-fire impacts from ash, sediment, and debris.

Being able to take a breath from the fire is allowing the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and our partner agencies to focus on immediate next steps, to understand what the Caldor and other fires mean for Tahoe, and to do everything possible to prepare for the next wildfire in the basin. The U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire have already begun repairing bulldozer lines and preparing for post-fire recovery, but longer-term mitigation and science and monitoring are needed. Additionally, TRPA and Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP) partners are working to bring more resources into the basin and scaling up wildfire protection and forest fuel reduction projects. As always, there is also much that each of us as individuals can do to help.

Recovery and Science

TRPA is engaged with the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU), state and local agencies, and property owners on immediate risks to safety and water quality and on emergency stabilization. The forthcoming USFS Burned Area Emergency Response Team report will help guide as much work as possible before winter sets in, with the ultimate goal of restoring the burned area and dozer lines as close to pre-fire conditions as possible.

Science partners through the Tahoe Science Advisory Council are rapidly responding to the potential negative effects from the wildfire with sampling and data collection. An extensive monitoring system already in place is helping with the research and expanded sampling in the impacted streams will help us understand fire effects on water quality. Research priorities will assess how smoke and ash impact the lake, how fuels management in the fire worked in comparison to untreated forest, and will evaluate restoration techniques on water quality.

A Climate Resilient Landscape

There is no doubt that we are in a climate emergency. Estimates are that one in three Americans have been personally affected by recent extreme weather events. Here at Lake Tahoe, a 2019 climate change vulnerability assessment predicts that the average number of acres burned in the Tahoe Basin every decade could increase up to seven-fold by the end of this century.

The kind of forest fuel reduction, defensible space, and home hardening that helped firefighters during the Caldor Fire will simply not be enough as higher temperatures, megafires, and prolonged drought change the ecosystem. Forest resilience is truly a landscape-scale problem that requires strong partnerships and big, holistic solutions. Thinning trees and vegetation around homes, making buildings more resistant to ignition, working as neighborhoods in fire preparedness, maintaining fuel reduction projects around communities, and now treating entire forest stands are all critical to our climate resilience.

Lake Tahoe EIP partners have completed more than 87,000 acres of fuel reduction treatments around communities since 1997. To scale up, TRPA and partners are collaborating on the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership, a 59,000-acre forest resilience project planned for the West Shore. The project will combine stream restoration, habitat, and fuel reduction and can become a model to treat more of Tahoe’s most hazardous areas.

What you can do

There is no shortage of ways that each of us can help. First and foremost, plan to stay out of closed areas affected by the fire and encourage others to as well. The Tahoe Rim Trail Association and Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association are already raising funds to help improve existing trails and to eventually rebuild some of the world-class trails that were damaged by the fire.

To help protect water quality, you can download the Tahoe Citizen Science App to your phone and use it to help measure and report ash, debris, and water quality issues. Registering your car with a Lake Tahoe License Plate in Nevada or California supports water quality restoration projects that help protect the lake from wildfire impacts, more extreme weather events, and changing precipitation patterns.

Property owners and neighborhood leaders can visit to learn about defensible space, tree removal, home-hardening, and becoming a Fire-Adapted Community.

Last, keep hoping for more snow!

–Joanne S. Marchetta is the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency