A Collaborative Approach to Emergency Response


By Chief Brian Estes

It’s been a rough couple of years in Placer County for both residents and emergency responders, with three major fires and two difficult winter seasons now in the history books.

As we head deeper into this year’s fire season, most in the Tahoe Basin and Truckee are very aware of the ever-present threat of large, damaging wildfires in our region. Fires are a significant threat in Tahoe given the dry, dense vegetation in mountainous terrain; however, I can also assure you that our residents and visitors are well protected by a complex network of emergency response services. 

This includes a multitude of agencies from federal, state, and local special districts that form a collaborative network of emergency response. As a sitting member of the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs Association for the past 15 years, I am confident in our coordination. This association is one of the most complex I’ve seen in my years of service incorporating two states, five counties, and multiple federal public land ownerships.


Our commitment to aggressive initial attack of new wildland fires comes through a common dispatch center housed at the Grass Valley Emergency Command Center and brings a consolidated response from local districts, Cal Fire, and federal forest agencies. This response is bolstered in unified command with our law enforcement partners who have jurisdictional responsibility for evacuations and the care of displaced residents.

A response in the Cal Fire State Responsibility Area to a wildland fire is robust and includes multiple agencies as we subscribe to a closest resource concept. The initial response will include eight to 10 fire engines, hand crews, bulldozers, command officers, and a full load of both fixed-winged and rotary-wing firefighting aircraft. Cal Fire aircraft based out of Grass Valley, Auburn, and Truckee will be on scene of any wildland fire in Truckee or the Lake Tahoe Basin within 20 minutes from the time of dispatch to support ground forces. The goal of Cal Fire is to suppress 95% of all wildland fires under 10 acres and we do this by using an aggressive and collaborative initial attack.

One of the unique things about eastside fire and emergency services is that Cal Fire and the local districts on the North Shore, West Shore, in Truckee, and in Incline Village all share a common 911 dispatch system that is based at the Grass Valley command center. This system ensures a unified ordering point for resources and allows for immediate communication with the sheriff’s office and allied dispatch centers in Washoe, El Dorado, and Douglas counties.

We routinely train on command and control, and in our recent unified command and evacuation training hosted at Palisades Tahoe, we focused on managing evacuations from the Basin during the high tourism season. I understand how concerned many are about the prospect of evacuating from the Basin, but we need to be cautious about the narrative that there is just one way in and one way out. There are multi-layered options available to our unified command officers and I want the public to know we come prepared with objective facts, collaboration, and expertise in our jobs.

Together with our partner fire and law enforcement agencies, we look at not only the impact of traffic on our road systems, but we also identify safe refuge areas, safety zones, and shelter-in-place options that we will evaluate to determine the best course of action during a fire. 

Our law enforcement partners are educated about local traffic flow capacities and may choose to rely on phased evacuations. The sheriff’s office, in coordination with Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol, is prepared to implement contra flows to maximize evacuation routes. They use mapping software to track neighborhood evacuation notifications. Command and control of traffic and the evacuation process are essential components of our unified command and something the Placer County Sheriff’s Office does exceptionally well.

I know that there are some who would like concrete identified procedures on evacuation routes well ahead of an emergency, but what I have learned over my career is that no two fires are alike and we must build our strategy and tactics on the fire and weather conditions in front of us. We combine pre-planned data, training, exercises, and on-site expertise to make the best decisions possible in the face of an emergency.

My call to action for you today is to prepare. Have an evacuation kit ready to go with emergency numbers, family medication, important paperwork, and anything you might need while displaced from your home. Keep a half tank of gas in your vehicle and please leave early if the evacuation order comes. Sign up for Placer Alert so that you will receive emergency notifications.

Finally, the Ready Placer Dashboard is an excellent website for emergency information. We have everything to gain by working with each other and we are strongest when we are collaborative in nature.

~ As the Cal Fire/Placer County fire chief, Brian Estes oversees Placer’s state and county fire operations and over 400 personnel. During his 33-year career, Estes spent 17 years assigned to Type-I teams. In 2018, he was named as the incident commander for Team 6, and is a three-time recipient of the Director’s Superior Accomplishment Award.


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  1. Well said, Chief Estes. The level of cooperation and interoperability among the members of the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs’ Association is unique and critically important as agencies are expected to do more with limited resources and as climate change creates unprecedented changes in fire behavior. A flexible approach and effective interagency coordination are the keys to safe, efficient evacuation of a complex and often crowded Tahoe Basin with a finite number of escape routes.
    Keep up the good work!