“The use of the word unprecedented is no longer unprecedented.” Joe Flannery, public affairs officer for the Tahoe National Forest, told me this on a late September afternoon. At that moment in time, over 3.9 million acres in California had suffered from wildfire in 2020, and the state’s national forests had just started reopening after having been closed from Sept. 9 to Sept. 18 due to high fire danger. Both of those facts are for the record books.
And there’s more. Five of the top 20 largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history have occurred this year, including the most expansive one thus far — the August Complex, which had scorched over 970,000 acres at print deadline. But wait, there’s more. Locally, red flag days (a meteorological rating for fire-prone weather) have been at an all-time high (13) and we’re still in the thick of fire season. The average number per year is six; the next-highest year was in 2012 with 10. 2019 only had two. Many of those red flag days at Tahoe were due to rainless thunderstorms.
And yes, again, there’s more. Scott McLean with Cal Fire told Moonshine that 2020’s number of lightning strikes across the state was higher than ever seen before. 2008 came closest, but that was only about half to a third as many as 2020. Cal Fire’s full breakdown of wildfire causes won’t come out until 2021, and many may remain listed as unknown.
“These are massive, massive fires,” explained Chris Anthony, staff chief for Cal Fire’s wildfire resilience program. “When I started my career with Cal Fire, a 60,000-acre fire — that was big, that was a big fire. Then we started having career fires … over 100,000, 200,000 [acres], which was mind-blowing. Now it’s like we’re seeing the career fires every year.
“It’s really important that we don’t try to normalize how bad things are becoming,” he cautioned, “and how bad things have become over the years.”
Nature has unleashed its powers, but people certainly play their role in starting wildfires — a significant one. Ninety-five percent of fires statewide are human-caused. To lower that percentage, Tahoe’s fire agencies put protections in place well before records started to be broken.
Other than mild flames that were quickly extinguished, the region has borne the brunt of statewide wildfires in the form of decreased air quality. But conditions for a massive wildfire remain ripe. Cumulatively, Tahoe is behind on rainfall and snowpack, leading to fire-fuel ready to burn earlier in the year; tropical depressions and hurricanes formed in the eastern Pacific Ocean have sent low-moisture storm elements into California; and a spike in camping and illegal campfires in Truckee/Tahoe’s backcountry means an increased urgency to educate people about fire restrictions. The perfect storm for a wildfire to rampage through the Tahoe area is there, but local fire districts and fire-focused agencies have thus far been able to successfully combat threats thanks to the red flag warning systems in place.
The National Weather Service decides what constitutes red flag conditions, and the Truckee/Tahoe region looks to the Reno NWS office. Chris Smallcomb, a meteorologist with the Reno office, said that to designate a red flag warning in Tahoe, staff keeps an eye out for windy conditions with low humidity and days with lots of thunderstorms and lightning. During a red flag warning, absolutely no open flames are allowed neither in the Basin nor Truckee. (In the Tahoe National Forest, however, campfires and open flames are normally allowed in established fire rings at developed sites. Not under current conditions, though.)
“The classic weather pattern that you get here, if you want the worst-case scenario [for fire weather], is you have five days of super-hot weather, and that dries everything out,” Smallcomb said. “… Then you get moisture that comes up from the monsoon [summertime waves of high humidity], from Arizona, Southern California, and it brings those thunderstorms to the area.”
Completing the dangerous trifecta are the wind and low humidity that remain once the thunderstorms dissipate. As Smallcomb put it, “We get a little bit of wind that comes off the Pacific Ocean and that’s what helps spread those fires even more dramatically.”
Flannery said the number of lightning strikes to hit the Tahoe National Forest this year isn’t abnormal. He didn’t have a specific count in the TNF for 2020 but pressed that lightning fires happen every year in the region.
Also happening every year: human-caused fires. Yet this year, both people and their fires are showing up in larger numbers.
Visitors and residents have inhabited both formal campgrounds and the backcountry at startling numbers in 2020, especially as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions pushed more people outside, according to Flannery. The TNF noted a 432% rise in occupancy at its French Meadows Campground compared to last summer.
Dispersed camping is on the rise as well, which Flannery says is defined as “camping that occurs outside an official [TNF] campground.” In Hope Valley, a popular dispersed camping area northeast of Stampede Reservoir, the TNF counted 300 RVs in one day, which technically made Hope Valley the second most popular campground despite being dispersed.
Paired with the free camping upswing, Flannery reported there have been a record number of abandoned campfires (176) in the forest this year, and 30 escaped campfires — those are fires that ignited their surroundings after not having been properly extinguished. (Read Rise in Illegal Campfires Spark Trail-Host Pilot Program online.)
This year, the entire Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (comprising local districts, state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, and others) instated a Basin-wide campfire ban to reduce confusion over what fire restrictions are in place in different districts and to combat the increase in escaped fire ignitions. See tahoelivingwithfire.com for details.
The Basin ban covers multiple aspects. Lisa Herron with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit explained that no type of outdoor fire involving solid fuels is permitted on public or private property. “That way,” she said, “regardless of whether you’re in a rental, you’re a homeowner, [or] you have a second home, the rules are all the same for everyone.”
Brian Newman, assistant chief in Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado unit, mentioned that the uptick in escaped campfires this year was also seen across the Basin’s federal land, in the backyards of homes, and in dispersed camping areas. Thankfully, the region had already put the campfire ban in place.
“We saw that trend early on and that’s in combination with drier fuels and then also an increase in visitation to the Basin,” he said. “When we started seeing that trend continue, we made the decision, in an effort to try to reduce the probability of a large, damaging fire, that reducing the number of human-caused ignitions was a way to really help cut down on that possibility.”