Last year California experienced its worst fire season on record, and this June experts say the table is set for a potentially even more dangerous year to come. The state is fresh off its driest winter since 1979, the forests are historically fuel-rich from 100 years of fire suppression, and there are more people occupying wildfire prone areas than ever before. The coming weather patterns will likely have the final say in what comes to pass in Truckee/Tahoe over the next six or more months, but it is clear already that preparation for a whopper of a year is necessary on the part of local fire agencies as well as for every local or visitor in the region.
“It’s looking more like August and not June, so by the time we get to October if we haven’t gotten any rain it’s just going to be explosive,” said Graham Kent, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at UNR. He added that last year’s fire season stretched all the way into this year until about Feb. 1, and after only a few months long reprieve, the ground is dry and ready to burn again.
“We had a fire yesterday [June 9], like, two to three acres in Lake Tahoe, and that never happens in early June,” Kent said. “If I were to fear a year, I would fear this one.”
Kent is also the inventor of ALERTWildfire, formerly ALERT Tahoe, a system of live webcams that monitor wildfire activity for the purpose of strategizing appropriate firefighting responses to early blazes. The Meeks Fire earlier this month was stopped by the time it burned only 3 acres, largely thanks to the information local teams got through the ALERTWildfire camera feed. Although the fire was halted early, the simple fact it needed such a quick response this early in the year is cause for concern.
“In Lake Tahoe in early June if you go back to a ‘typical year’ in the basin you should see a lot of snowpack, a lot of runoff, and a lot of green grass, not 2- and 3-acre fires in Meeks Bay,” said Brian Estes, CAL FIRE unit chief for the Nevada/Placer/Yuba Unit, and Placer Fire Department chief. “There’s no snowpack in the mountains and so the fuels on the east side are extremely dry, and we’re seeing fires burn at higher elevations probably six to seven weeks ahead of where we should be.”
At the time of this writing, 17,273 acres have already burned in California — a small number compared to the 4.4 million that burned in the state in 2020, but it’s still early days. The Placer Fire Department has seen about a 20 percent increase in the number of fire responses compared to last year. Fire teams across the state are gearing up to prepare, and Estes says that his department is now fully staffed about a month ahead of schedule. He added one barrier to staffing statewide, however, has been a lack of workers for many fire departments’ inmate crews.
CAL FIRE has typically had the resources of more than 190 inmate-staffed firefighting crews available to assist, but due to some aspects of the pandemic, specifically the Covid-19 Early Release Program, that number has been cut down to about 80 crews. “It’s not an easy thing to replace,” Estes said. Although his department is at peak staffing levels, a large fire would require collaboration across many agencies, and a staffing shortfall has the potential to affect the response to any fire in the state.
According to Estes and Kent, one of the most influential factors moving forward is whether or not we see a repeat of the monsoonal lightning storms that hit the High Sierra and the foothills last year, causing many of the worst blazes. If the storms roll in with a lot of moisture, the threat might be tempered, but if they arrive drier as they did in 2020 the potential for catastrophic fires is high. Estes said thousands of ignitions came from lightning strikes last year, playing a huge role in another record fire year.
Even in spite of thousands of lightning strikes, though, according to CAL FIRE more than 90 percent of the fires they respond to are human-caused. With a rapidly growing Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), a huge responsibility will shift to everyday citizens to keep themselves safe.
“California is a Mediterranean climate so we’re used to drought cycles and wet cycles and it’s kind of part of our normal cycle, but we’ve also introduced 41 million people to that Mediterranean climate,” Estes said. “The fire starts in wilderness areas, national forest system lands, and private lands … have increased significantly.”
For a tourist-laden region like Truckee/Tahoe, the threat of a wildfire erupting during peak visitation in the summer has been a topic of concern and planning for years. Not only is the likelihood of a fire increased by the crowds, but an evacuation of that size would also be incredibly difficult. Estes said that he tries to avoid distributing specific evacuation plans to residents because fire is such a dynamic beast and flexibility is important, but both residents and visitors should take care to familiarize themselves with potential evacuation routes, stay informed, and evacuate as early as possible, if necessary.
According to Truckee Fire Protection District Fire Chief Bill Seline, his department and Nevada County are working with a new service called Zone Haven to offer more streamlined evacuation information to locals and visitors in the Truckee/Tahoe region. The app and website will offer ongoing evacuation route options and information specific to neighborhoods, and Seline says it will make evacuation communication clearer between residents and first responders. People also can sign up for the communication platform, Nixle, which pushes out updates via text and email from local public safety departments in the case of an emergency.
Aside from evacuation knowledge, Seline says the “single most important thing” that residents can do is to reduce the fuels around their own properties.
“If everybody did their part it would really reduce the fire intensity that would come through a neighborhood,” Seline said. “We know that in 99% of fires, defensible space matters.”
Seline says that fires of similar size to past burns could be incredibly devastating to the town nowadays considering the dry conditions, fuel-rich forest, and growing Wildland Urban Interface.
“If you took [a historic fire from 1994] and overlaid that on Truckee today it could be a disaster; it could wipe out our entire town and our recreation and aesthetics that we enjoy today,” Seline said. He added that although he believes the Truckee Fire Department and their partners are very well trained and resourced, acting early on potential fires is the only option at this point in the game. “Our chance is really to stop these fires in the first 10 acres. If we can’t get to them in 10 acres, that’s when they get big on the wrong day and can turn into a large catastrophe.”