Rise of illegal campfires spark trail-host pilot program

Rise of illegal campfires spark trail-host pilot program 



Before I get started with today’s Moonshine Minutes, which is largely about the danger of wildfire in our local forests, I want to start with a crucial announcement: at 5 p.m. on Monday night, the Tahoe National Forest, along with most national forests across the state, announced temporary closures due to “unprecedented and dangerous fire conditions with a combination of extreme heat, significant wind events, dry conditions, and firefighting resources that are stretched to the limit.” Most campgrounds are closed. All campfires are prohibited. I repeat, all campfires are prohibited. 

Now that’s established … I’m Mayumi Elegado, publisher of Moonshine Ink.

Most people have heard that a pyrotechnic gender reveal ignited the El Dorado fire outside San Bernardino this past Saturday. Many are asking, “how do we get it through our thick human skulls that this is fire season?” The Tahoe National Forest recently started a local program to help drill this fact into our collective psyche.


It’s an idea that has “been rattling around” for a while at TNF and that came to life when it was noted that wildland firefighters have responded to a dramatically increased number of escaped campfires this summer, said Joe Flannery, public affairs officer for TNF. In fact, the number of escaped campfires this year is more than double the previous record year — firefighters responded to 225% more fires as compared to the second highest year in 2018, with a total of nine.

This is just the count for the campfires that ignited the adjacent area. The potential was far greater.

Flannery said, “Over 100 times so far this season, a Tahoe National Forest employee has discovered a fire burning in a homemade ring outside of a developed campsite that had the immediate potential of escaping, burning public resources such as our critical infrastructure, our water transportation system, as well as potentially burning into our adjacent communities.” 

The forest service believes it knows why there’s been such an increase. As the novel coronavirus pushes people to the outdoors, a growing number of visitors are finding refuge in the Tahoe National Forest, and many are coming for the first time. 

This increase of visitors is great on one hand because it’s always encouraging to have people using public lands, Flannery says, but with less experienced campers come increased issues of trash, human waste, and illegal campfires. He added that day-use recreation has skyrocketed, with probably as many people passing through trailheads as at campgrounds this year. 

“Perhaps now more than ever, your national forest is calling … We want folks to visit their national forest and use this public resource in a time where it may matter the most. But while doing so, we really ask people to recreate responsibly. And the first item on that list is to follow our campfire restrictions.”

Clearly the forest service needed help getting the word out about how to visit responsibly. Thinking of ubiquitous campground hosts, forest officials thought, why not educate people on the doorstep of their forest recreation, as users hit the trail? Post people on a well-used trailhead to answer questions, provide guidance, and keep an eye on what’s happening. A call for volunteers was put out. 

Jill and August Wheeler, a couple hailing from Idaho who are taking time off, applied. The two are healthcare-industry professionals who serve as apt educators, come with readymade mobile housing, and enjoy riding on both dirt and mountain bikes, and thus have experience with multi-use recreation. It was a perfect fit.

On Aug. 1, the Wheelers became TNF’s first trailhead hosts and were assigned to the popular Sawtooth trailhead in Truckee, located in the backside of the Ponderosa Palisades neighborhood. The couple live on site in their self-customized Ford Transit 4×4 van, which became their permanent home in January, nestled in next to a large fallen tree and its frontend points at the trailhead. A sign designating them as trailhead hosts sits on the side of the van facing the parking lot and their “door” is open 24/7. 

The primary goal of them being there, August said, is keeping the area secure from fires and letting people know where camping is allowed and where it’s not. Fire restrictions were instated on May 29 this year in the Tahoe National Forest, which prohibit campfires everywhere except fire rings within specific developed recreation sites. It’s important to note that during Red Flag days, no fires are allowed anywhere. 

Camping is only permitted in developed campgrounds on the whole stretch of land from the Sawtooth trailhead down to the Tahoe Basin. Two or three times a week, August says he notices people attempting to camp illegally. “Honestly, they might roll in at night and just not know. I’ll touch base with them early on. Let them know where there is camping … I’ll just kind of steer them in the right direction.”

While the Wheelers help share forest service guidelines with users, they also are on-the-ground monitors. 

They are keeping a watch right now, Flannery said. “It’s a busy time of year for wildfires. That’s a busy dispersed-recreation staging area and so it is nice to have an extra pair of ears and eyes out there in the field that can report back to our wildland firefighters for any potential risk.”

The Wheelers have had to call in “bad behavior” to the forest service or emergency personnel, such as illegal camping, rowdy drivers on the road, and, of course, campfires, but they also help people better enjoy their visit. Over the past month, they’ve fielded questions about trail access and camping, provided detailed maps, and even aided bike riders in fixing their bikes. August estimates they interact with at least 20 people daily and knocks on their van door have come as early as 6 a.m. Mornings and evenings are the busiest times, he said, and they keep an eye out for people who look lost or are gathered around the map posted on a board at the trailhead, which isn’t detailed enough to effectively plan a ride or hike. When the Prosser Hill fire was burning, they fielded a lot of questions about it.

In California, approximately 95% of wildfires are human-caused, and many are the result of escaped campfires, says the forest service. Illegal fires can be punishable by a fine up to $5,000 dollars or six months in jail; but more importantly, if not controlled, they could lead to catastrophic wildfire and the destruction of neighboring communities. It’s a terrifying issue that’s top of mind for every resident. Fires in California have now burned a record 2.2 million acres in 2020, with the most dangerous part of the year to come. 

Flannery said: “What we don’t want to happen is the fields continue to dry out, moving through to September, and temperatures to stay warm like this. We are going to have more lightning fires. We will be committing resources to suppressing those fires to protect local communities, and to protect our public resources and our public infrastructure. The worst thing we could have is completely avoidable fires that we also have to commit resources to.”

The education piece of the wildfire puzzle looks like it may continue in Tahoe National Forest. August and Jill are already talking with the agency about doing this next year. It’s a way to bring everyone into the fold, which August believes is key.

He said, “I think we have to be respectful that there is nothing more public than public lands. It really, truly is here for everyone. A little bit of respect and common courtesy goes a long way.”

See the article, Rise of Illegal Campfires Spark Trail-Host Pilot Program, at moonshineink.com, which includes links to info on Tahoe National Forest current closures. Come back tomorrow for Moonshine Minutes where we seek to answer why Tahoe struggles so with trash. Meanwhile, be safe and be respectful. It truly does go a long way.


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