Winter Won’t Wipe Out Wildfire


By Steve Leighton

The Sierra’s remarkable winter was a welcome – albeit exhausting – relief after an 8-year drought which included, most recently, California’s driest three-year stretch on record. It’s important that the abundance of snow we received doesn’t tempt us to rest on our laurels. The Tahoe Basin remains a high fire severity zone, and the insurance crisis remains a harsh reality.

A single heavy winter, despite all its benefits, brings an increase in vegetation growth that leads to a larger fuel load for wildfires when vegetation does dry out. Prolonged drought affects vegetation, leading to increased susceptibility to diseases and pests and even die-offs of certain species. One wet winter won’t be enough to reverse the ecological damage caused by an extended period of water stress.

While fire season in the Tahoe Basin isn’t going to disappear this year, there is good news that it may be delayed, possibly until July if conditions remain consistent. That delay is the perfect opportunity to work on defensible space around homes while conditions are conducive to dooryard burning, which allows homeowners to rid properties of green waste. Homeowners in California must obtain an annual burn permit from for the season, and must confirm with county air quality districts that it is a permissive burn day before burning.


When the conditions warrant, burn permits will be suspended by Cal Fire and fire districts will return to seasonal fire restrictions, declaring a ban on the outdoor burning of wood and charcoal during fire season, with a complete prohibition on outdoor open flame during red flag weather conditions. Until then, we can enjoy our pre-fire season traditions and activities while we prepare our homes and communities to be more resilient when fire season does return.

The following tips will help community members prepare for wildfire season:

  • Create a non-combustible zone around all structures by moving any flammable material at least 5 feet away; mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles — anything that can burn needs to be at least 5 feet from the structure.
  • Remove accumulated vegetative debris from the roof.
  • Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration.
  • Reduce embers that could pass through vents in the eaves by installing 1/8 inch metal mesh screening.
  • Clean debris from exterior attic vents and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening to reduce ember ingress.
  • Repair or replace damaged or loose window screens and any broken windows.
  • Create an ember-resistant zone under the footprint of, and around, all decks. This action will reduce the likelihood of under-deck flame exposure.
  • Screen or box in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.

More resources are available at

~ Steve Leighton is the fire chief of the North Tahoe Fire and Meeks Bay Fire protection districts, serving the North and West shores of Lake Tahoe and the Alpine Meadows community. Chief Leighton is a 31-year veteran of the fire service.


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