Quick response, fuels management weakened Interchange fire

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun

TRUCKEE " Ben Gwerder surveyed the still-smoking ground on the outskirts of Tahoe Donner subdivision, even as fire crews continued to wet down the steaming soil.

Less than 24 hours earlier, a downed powerline had ignited a wildfire at the Donner Lake interchange with Interstate 80, which soon threatened the 6,000-home subdivision on the slopes above Truckee.

"CDF was able to really get a handle on things from here on," said Gwerder, Tahoe Donner's assistant forester said, standing on the spot where the fire encountered the subdivision's aggressive fuel-reduction program.

"This exemplifies what we are trying to do with the forestry department."

Thanks in part to the subdivision's forest management, a joint force of 300 firefighters was able to completely contain the Interchange fire by 10 p.m. Wednesday, said Calfire spokesperson Gina Chamberlin.

After full containment, crews walked the fire's perimeter and revised the estimate of acres the fire consumed to 80 acres from earlier estimates as high as 170 acres, Chamberlin said.

Calfire expects to continue mop-up efforts for the next two to three days, retaining most of the more than 300 firefighters who battled the blaze, much of the ground equipment and water-dropping helicopters, to douse remaining hot spots, Chamberlin said.

"People will continue to see engines, helicopters and smoke," Chamberlin said. "We will also be on I-80, so we want the public to take precautions while driving on the interstate."

The fire started at about 1:50 p.m. Wednesday when a contractor for Sierra Pacific Power Co. dropped a tree on a power line near the interchange, said Sierra Pacific Power spokesman Karl Walquist.

When a falling tree landed on a power line and snapped it, the live wire fell between the crew and its fire-suppression equipment, said Gene Welch, Truckee public fire and safety officer.

Unable to reach the firefighting equipment, the crew could only watch as sparks from the high-voltage line ignited dry brush and started the fire.

Walquist declined to name the contractor, but said the company specializes in removing "hazard trees" that threaten power lines in strong winds or storms.

"We are meeting with the company to get more information on what happened and why. Then we will take measures to make sure an incident like this does not occur again," Walquist said. "This particular company is large and well-respected, and they are very concerned and have temporarily halted all operations in California."

While financial responsibility for the fire has yet to be determined, Walquist said the contractor was state licensed and bonded.

While the fire came within a quarter-mile of the 6,000-home Tahoe Donner subdivision, no structures were damaged, Chamberlin said.

"One-quarter mile sounds really close, but we were able to hold it," Chamberlin said. "The fuels-reduction work by Tahoe Donner Forestry was also a great, great help."

Bill Houdyschell, Tahoe Donner's forester, said his crews had used a tractor to treat the area that slowed the fire, burned piles of excess fuel, and planted trees to replace the faster-burning brush.

"There was fire modeling a few years ago that found fire goes through brush four times faster than through forest," Houdyschell said.

The fire was also slowed when it reached the site of a previous fire, Chamberlin said. The last fire to sweep through the area was the 2003 Donner fire.

"It's burned twice in the same area, once in 1960 with the Donner Ridge fire, which changed the area into brush, so we we've been trying to get the forest back," he said. "Then in 2003 the fire burned somewhere between 70 and 100 acres again."

The 1960 Donner Ridge fire torched 45,000 acres, from the Donner Lake interchange and across most of the area where the subdivision would later be built, reaching all the way to the California-Nevada state line, Houdyschell said.

"We've been working on that area since 1993, starting from the roads and working out," Houdyschell said. "2003 was our first big test, and now we'll have to see what has burned and plan what we can and can't do next year to get the forest going again."


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