The west as a whole needs to be on its toes when it comes to wildfire, and our Tahoe/Truckee community has been abuzz with fire preparedness even as we continue to battle the viral pandemic. In fact, this past Tuesday marked the second Red Flag Warning in the Tahoe Basin in two weeks, while last summer that region only saw one instance of warnings elevating to that level, and not until September.
Welcome to Moonshine Minutes, I’m Becca Loux, here to look at what shouldn’t be burning this hot summer season.
The Truckee Fire Protection District is a known innovator, having passed the region’s first open-fire ban last season. What exactly did they ban?
All things that are open fire. That includes:
residential campfire/bonfires that burn anything other than gas
barbecues that burn charcoal, wood, or lump charcoal
ceramic charcoal grills (example: Big Green Egg)
briquette fuel-based smokers and
wood shavings added for flavor
While one year’s data isn’t enough to draw definitive conclusions, the team is hopeful the ban had a positive outcome.
Here’s a report directly from battalion chief Laura Brown and fire chief Bill Seline:
We believe the ban was effective. About 95% of wildfires [reported to Cal Fire] are caused by people, and campfires are one of the most preventable causes.
We did have a lot of people report illegal fires and barbecues last season after the ordinance went into effect. Unfortunately, our reporting system is really difficult to identify these particular call types so all [they] can say is anecdotally that there were maybe 50 to 100 calls to 911 throughout the six-month fire season.
For fire starts, in 2018 we had 22 wildfire starts but last year we had 16.
In 2018, we responded to 15 escaped or abandoned campfires and last year, after the ban took effect, we responded to only three, which was encouraging. These are all good signs but there were other factors at play like favorable weather conditions last year, so it is difficult to make any assessments on the small sample and only one year of data.
The Truckee Fire Protection District Burn Ban is a local ordinance that was passed in 2019. We revisited the ordinance in January 2020 at a board meeting to get public input and opinions for this season. Although there are some people that oppose the ban, we believe the majority of the public is in favor of it, willing to sacrifice a summer nicety for wildfire safety.
The ban went into effect June 15, once Cal Fire called for a burn suspension. There were no changes to the ban from the prior year. However, in the last few years the ban, or something similar, has been implemented in all the other North Tahoe fire districts making it a regional ban.
In 2007, the Angora Fire (South Lake Tahoe) was started from an abandoned campfire that wasn’t properly extinguished. It burned 3,000 acres and destroyed 242 homes in an afternoon!
So, there’s reason to expect Truckee Fire’s ban will continue to have positive affects. Other districts in the basin are following suit.
We checked in with North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District which serves Incline Village/Crystal Bay, and is not to be confused with North Tahoe Fire Protection District, which protects 32 square miles on the North and West shores of Tahoe, from Crystal Bay at the state line down to Emerald Bay and out to Alpine Meadows.
They each have a ban on open campfires much like the one in Truckee. What bans are in place and what effects are the lakeside districts seeing? For the answer, we heard from Tia Rancourt, public education/information officer for the NLTFPD and Erin Holland, public information officer for the NTFPD.
Rancort said: “We typically follow the Lake Tahoe Basin Lake Tahoe Management Unit fire restrictions during fire season, which went into effect May 30 until further notice. [Yet NLTFPD put those restrictions into effect even earlier, on April 21 this year, due to dry climate]. This means no charcoal or solid fuel (wood) barbecues and campfires on any beach in the Lake Tahoe Basin. IVGID beach charcoal grills are allowed for cooking in the designated areas; however, not during red flag weather conditions.”
Holland said: “Yes, the ban on wood-burning and charcoal appliances went into effect on June 15 when fire season was declared, and will remain in effect until fire season is over. Outdoor wood and charcoal fires are banned all year in short-term/vacation rental homes. Fireworks are always illegal in California. The effects we are seeing have been mostly positive, with much of the response from the community being supportive of the new code.”
The districts clarified that official fire season starts in the region are signaled by the time that restrictions go into effect and vary year to year and jurisdiction by jurisdiction. This year Truckee Fire’s went into effect June 15, along with the NTFPD’s, coordinating with Cal Fire’s county bans and permit requirements.
We wanted to know in all three districts how common it is for people to report illegal campfires on neighbors or fellow campers.
Seline and Brown of Truckee Fire said, “We have noticed the call volume has increased on the neighborhood-concerned campfire calls to 911. We will send a fire engine out to extinguish and educate people about illegal fires. We have also noticed a number of people switching from wood campfires and charcoal BBQs to gas appliances, which are legal fires in the ordinance.”
Rancort of the NLTFPD said, “It is quite common because no one wants to see or experience the devastation from wildfire in our Lake Tahoe Basin.”
Holland of the NTFPD said, “We receive several informal calls and inquiries each week during business hours, and an engine company will be dispatched if someone calls 911 about an illegal fire.”
Next, we asked all three districts who to call to report unsanctioned fires.
All were unanimous: Report illegal fires by calling 911.
Go to moonshineink.com to find the full story, Was Last Year’s Historic Open-Fire Ban in Truckee Effective?, which includes links to Truckee Fire’s full ordinance and a super helpful page on tahoelivingwithfire.com that outlines fire district boundaries in the region.
Today’s Minutes comes from a section we do monthly, titled You Asked. They Answered. Moonshine Ink reporters dive into questions you, the readers, ask. We seek out experts and sources who can best answer the queries. Have a burning question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org . Stay safe, Tahoe, and stay vigilant in the face of viral and incendiary threats alike.