Joanne Marchetta: Wildfires happen. Is your community prepared?
Welcome to summer! The solstice officially arrived Friday at 8:54 a.m., welcoming in the longest day of the year. As the snowpack melts away, and the lake fills above rim, we enter the warm and dry months that we relish after winter. As Lake Tahoe’s landscape begins to dry out, wildfire danger will grow.
Our respite from the seasonal dangers of wildfire here in the basin is coming to an end. With temperatures climbing, relative humidity lowering, and afternoon winds blowing across the lake, the basin will become susceptible to wildfire.
This year’s Lake Tahoe Wildfire Awareness Month theme is, “Wildfires Happen… Is your community prepared?” It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves. Have we properly prepared for when a wildfire threatens our family and home? Wildfires happen in an instant. Just ask the people whose lives have been devastated by the flames.
Our memories here in Tahoe are bookended by last year’s “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California and the 2007 Angora wildfire in South Lake Tahoe.
This coming Monday will mark the 12th anniversary of the Angora fire, a Sunday afternoon in June that residents here at the lake will never forget.
The Angora fire swallowed up 242 homes and 3,100 acres. Some folks got as little as five minutes’ warning before they were forced to evacuate. Officially blamed on an illegal campfire, the winds were howling that Sunday afternoon. A mighty afternoon zephyr was pushing the flames along the Angora ridge. I evacuated my house as I watched my neighbors’ homes erupt in flames. Mercifully everyone got out alive.
It was a different story this past November in Paradise, California. A downed powerline sparked the “Camp Fire.” Again, the howling wind played a primary role in the death and devastation that followed. Fifty mph winds brought down that powerline, pushing a torrent of flames into Paradise. In the intervening six hours, Paradise would be lost.
Eighty-five people died, most of them trapped and terrified trying to flee the conflagration. The flames incinerated nearly 14,000 homes.
All of this is to say that wildfires happen. Moreover, once a fire starts, it’s too late to start preparing. So, prepare now and practice often. Have a family meeting and get everyone on the same page. Because when the flames are racing toward you, or somebody is knocking on your door telling you to evacuate, you won’t have time to think. You may very well be running for your life.
Prepare an emergency kit, or what we call a GO Bag, ready and waiting. Pack financial documents, insurance documents, medications, water, flashlights, radio, and pet essentials. Having your GO Bag ready will save you precious time.
The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team has compiled the information you need to complete an evacuation tool kit. We invite you to check out https://www.tahoelivingwithfire.info. This website houses great resources to help you put together your family wildfire action plan.
Now let’s talk defensible space. Have you implemented a defensible space plan on your property? Your property has a much better chance of surviving a wildfire by creating defensible space.
Here are a few simple rules of thumb.
Ensure there are no combustible materials within 5 feet of the house.
From 5 feet to 30 feet, have a zone that’s lean, clean, and green. This is the area that typically makes up a residential landscape. Maintain this area with very little combustible material.
Rake pine needles and keep landscaped areas moist.
Clear dead vegetation away from homes and out to the property line.
Shrubs and trees should be thinned, creating a safe separation of space around plants and trees.
Work with neighbors to ensure defensible space between adjacent properties.
Remember, trees under 14 inches in diameter don’t need a permit to be cut. You can also remove low hanging branches and clear shrubs under trees that create a ladder for flames to climb. If you still have questions about defensible space, most fire districts around the basin will provide a free defensible space evaluation for your house.
Think about asking your neighbors to band together to join the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities. The Tahoe Resource Conservation District sponsors this program and works with neighbors and local fire agencies to create communities that can be defended against fire.
On a much broader scale, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team continues to aggressively manage forest health. TRPA is part of a team which includes the USDA Forest Service, both states, local fire districts, and local organizations. Forest thinning projects on 50,000 acres of forest have been completed since the Angora fire, reducing the amount of hazardous fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires. And the scope and scale of these projects will continue to grow in the coming years. Treating the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI is another key focus point. Another 50,000 acres of WUI are planned for treatment over the next decade.
Another new reality for which we must prepare is that public utility companies like PG&E, Liberty Utilities, and NV Energy will increasingly be cutting power to customers during extreme weather events. High winds and dangerously dry conditions may prompt the National Weather Service to issue red flag fire warnings. This means conditions for explosive wildfire growth exist, and that utility companies may proactively turn off the power. This is known as de-energization or Public Safety Power Shutoff. Utilities will attempt to give customers prior notice through social media and local news outlets, but again its incumbent on us to have a proper plan in place. Most importantly, make sure your contact information is up-to-date with local utilities, so they can notify you about potential power shutoffs. I would encourage you to investigate https://www.prepareforpowerdown.com for a wealth of planning information.
The reality is that wildfires happen. The question is, are you prepared? We all play a critical role in defending our homes and protecting our families. Like most major projects here at Tahoe it takes collaboration and cooperation to find success. Let’s once again work together to keep Lake Tahoe safe as we enter another fire season.
Joanne S. Marchetta is the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.