By Joanne S. Marchetta
If the past weekend is any indication, Tahoe is under pressure. As coronavirus cases grow nearly everywhere, people naturally look to the mountains, fresh air, and clear water of Tahoe as a respite. Now residents and visitors alike are struggling to adjust to the confusion around re-opening, and visitation that is normally our lifeblood is suddenly a health risk.
That heightened risk requires new more careful behavior – masks and distancing – to foreclose a real emergency. Emergency is the operative word. Not only are we facing a health emergency with COVID, but the overstocked condition of our forests and danger of wildfire have us in a constant state of emergency during summer’s dry conditions. And that emergency too requires careful, thoughtful action. The passage of time may be dampening our memory of the helplessness we felt 13 years ago in the midst of the Angora Wildfire. And the fog of hindsight about that emergency might make us feel like it can’t happen again or we’ve already done enough to prevent another disaster.
When the Tallac Fire and then three near-simultaneous fires around Echo Lakes sparked last week in the southwest quadrant of the basin, alarm bells went off for Lake Tahoe in more than a few ways. The 2007 Angora blaze burned for eight days and took out 3,100 acres of forest and 254 homes and structures. Year after year since then, when major wildfires conflagrate up and down the Sierra Nevada range, I wonder along with many of you, when will Tahoe’s next wildfire come? Fire season brings a renewed and inescapable uneasiness.
That worry should spur all of us to take action. Since Angora, fire districts, forest managers, TRPA, and other environmental agencies have coalesced as the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (TFFT). Our concerted efforts have resulted in 57,000 acres of forest restoration projects around neighborhoods—twice the acres treated in the ten years before Angora. And 22,000 more acres will be treated in the next five years. At that point, nearly 100 percent of neighborhoods in the basin will have a critical buffer around them. Fuels reduction will not stop there. The Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership is planning a 60,000-acre forest and watershed health project to reduce excess fuels in Tahoe’s overgrown west shore forests. When wildfires erupt and the memories of Tahoe’s painful losses return with crystal clarity, it tells us that more action is needed. Striving for a resilient landscape, or a resilient community, takes planning, action, funding, and a shared vision for the future free from disregard or neglect.
As with coronavirus precautions that have become commonplace, there are actions that every person and household can take to address the uneasiness that comes each time a thick pillar of smoke rises in the Tahoe basin. The TFFT has designated July as wildfire awareness month and we urge you to take action along with us and fight fire with a plan. At tahoelivingwithfire.com there are clear directions and resources to help you create an evacuation plan, establish defensible space, harden your home against falling embers, and create a fire-adapted community. The team has redesigned in-person events this year and will instead host a virtual home retrofit workshop July 28. Sign up from the website and look out for new video tutorials in place of neighborhood educational events.
Those actions may be critical in the event of a wildfire, but fire prevention must lead our efforts. Campfires and backyard fire pits are prohibited this summer, but also watch for red flag warning days. In most areas on those days, all open flame including gas fire pits and barbecues are prohibited. Personal fireworks have no place at Tahoe at any time. The TFFT asks you to be Tahoe’s eyes and ears. If you see something, say something. Too many residential fires have already escaped this year. With each unavoidable fire event, we get closer to having new and again painful memories of another destructive blaze.
Our deepest gratitude goes out to the Tallac Hot Shot crew, federal, local, and state firefighters who quickly controlled the Echo Lakes and Tallac fires last week, and to the women and men in every fire district around the basin who stand ever-ready to protect our homes and our natural environment from catastrophic wildfire. With each acre of restored forest and with every defensible space project, you and our fire professionals stand more protected.
–Joanne S. Marchetta is the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency