At 5:15 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 30, the Truckee Fire Protection District responded to reports of an explosion and fire in a home on the north shore of Donner Lake. As nearby residents watched in alarm, dark smoke wafted upward from the single-structure blaze, and a slew of agencies descended — including Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and local fire districts providing mutual aid assistance.
While it seemed to some neighbors that the fire was controlled in minutes, in fact the crews continued working on the property for some time, checking for hotspots and “mopping up,” according to Truckee Fire Protection District Public Information and Safety Officer Laura Brown. Anyone worried that the district was depleted of resources sent to the 844,000-acre Dixie Fire or to the 204,000-acre Caldor Fire, was proven wrong. Brown did not confirm the cause of the fire by press time.
The local districts maintain crew members and equipment that are necessary for emergencies close to home, Brown said.
“All of the staffing and all of the incidents are very dynamic,” she said. “We have a certain allotment of people we can send to big fires and still account for our primary mission, which is Truckee Fire. We can only send a maximum of five people to the big fires.”
According to the New York Times, authorities say of the 27,000 firefighters working on blazes across the country, about 15,000 are in California. Truckee/North Tahoe contributions boost allowances from many other districts in California, Nevada, and states across the nation. The Caldor Fire alone has the involvement of dozens of non-fire-fighting agents, too, including PG&E, which is rebuilding burned infrastructure, and Barton Memorial Hospital, which moved patients to new healthcare facilities, and the American Red Cross, which set up evacuation shelters.
Low humidity, high winds, and thick, dry forests are big reasons both the Dixie and Caldor fires have defied control. But human actions can gain a powerful upper hand, as indicated in how the firefighters kept the flames from engulfing the settlements of Strawberry and Christmas Valley.
There’s a strict protocol for how human resources are allocated, Brown said. When an incident flares up, the administrative unit managing the fire requests the number of equipment and personnel needed. What follows is a domino effect of decisions.
North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Fire Chief Ryan Sommers explained that the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, reviews daily all fire resource requests and the complexity and threats of each event, and then creates a priority list.
“Once the list is established,” Sommers said, “they ‘push’ those requests for resources down to Regional Geographic Coordination Centers. The GACCs then ask local dispatch centers if they have resources available and are filled at the local level.”
An assignment on a remote fire is usually 14 days long, said the Truckee Fire Protection District’s Brown. “The work situation is different depending on the agency they’re working with,” she said. It could be a 12-hour shift with 12 hours off, or 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for example.
The Truckee district has a total of 40 line personnel (those responsible for responding to fires and other emergencies) with up to 12 on shift each day, she said. During non-peak seasons, that daily shift amount can drop to eight. At any given time, there are also personnel out for training, vacation, out-of-county assignments, and illness or injury.
“It is a constant moving target to have the minimum staffing and get backfill for open positions,” Brown said. “If we are not able to fulfill our in-district requirements, we may not have personnel to send out on those out-of-county wildfire assignments.”
Contributions to the wildfires from other local districts have been significant. As of last week, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District in Incline Village had 44 personnel assigned to the Caldor Fire, including two of its three 20-person hand crews and its B-11 dozer crew of four.
In 2021 to date, Tahoe City’s North Tahoe Fire Protection District and Meeks Bay Fire Protection District have sent crews to the Salt Fire, Beckwourth Fire, Tamarack Fire, Dixie Fire, River Fire, Monument Fire, McFarland Fire and Caldor Fire. During July, there were only four days when a North Tahoe and Meeks Bay staff members were not combatting a fire elsewhere in the state, said Erin Holland, the public information officer for the two districts.
The local staffing made plenty of difference when the Donner Lake home went up in flames, but, according to Brown, the Truckee fire district, as well as districts regionwide who provide mutual aid, were prepared. In fact, more disasters did transpire. “As soon as that call came in, we got another fire call and one medical call,” Brown said.
Emergencies won’t wait.
Resources allocated to both the Dixie and Caldor fires as of last night, Aug. 31, indicate the amount of effort going into fighting them. About 30% of the nation’s active firefighters are on these two blazes.
- 4,224 personnel
- 78 crews
- 26 helicopters
- 490 engines
- 96 dozers
- 77 water tenders
- 3,991 personnel
- 59 crews
- 19 helicopters
- 342 engines
- 138 dozers
- 123 water tenders