Scott Ferguson first got wind of the town’s project via a postcard earlier this spring and didn’t think much of it. Over time, as details unfolded, it became clear that due to this wildfire mitigation project, he was going to lose a handful of trees at the corner of his property, including one he called the anchor of his yard.
Ferguson says he and his wife have spent the past 15 years carefully maintaining their property to eliminate ladder fuels and create defensible space, and based on that, he had multiple meetings with town leaders to plead the case for leaving the trees, as the parcel was already wildfire-ready. Despite all that, the trees were felled this June, leaving him heartbroken and critical of the town’s blanket approach toward “fire hardening.” Ferguson, who owns two local businesses, said that his two kids, now in high school, practically grew up under the shade of the “anchor,” a 30-year-old Jeffrey pine.
“It boils down to the overreach of the project and [the town] coming in and summarily cutting precious, loved trees for no explainable, justifiable reason. It did not reduce fire risk in our neighborhood,” said Ferguson, adding that he believes it increased fire risk on his property because the area normally shaded by a mature tree will now be exposed for the accumulation of ladder fuels. “Is Truckee going to come in and mitigate that every year?”
The tree removal was part of the Town of Truckee’s 2021 Vegetation Removal Project, an effort to prepare for wildfire that was piloted in Tahoe Donner last year and is poised to clear vegetation on about 40 miles of the town’s roadways by the end of the summer. The estimated $700,000 project was funded through Cal Fire grants and funds from the Truckee Special Service Area 1 (a parcel assessment funding mechanism in Tahoe Donner). Although the town is not a fire agency, public works director Dan Wilkins said the project was one way the town found to assist with local firefighting agencies’ astronomical task of priming the area to be fire-resistant.
The removal project impacted a 10-foot easement that runs along all roadways, for which the town is responsible. Many residents have criticized the plan — a petition against it currently has 457 signatures on change.org — for not taking a more site-specific course of action in determining which tree to cut. But Wilkins said that added snow storage, easier road maintenance, and reduced threat to utility lines made the complete clearing of vegetation in the easement the most beneficial option to the town.
“We definitely have some residents that would prefer that we either not be doing the project or that we scale it back in some fashion,” Wilkins said, adding, however, that it is necessary to “improve the ability of emergency service providers not only to get in and out of subdivisions either to fight a fire or potentially more importantly to evacuate people or help people evacuate.”
Instances like Ferguson’s tree are increasingly common casualties of the crux decision between the painstakingly slow protocol followed in the past and the decisive, large-scale treatments that agencies responsible for fire mitigation are tasked with doing — and in the face of one of the most critical fire environments California has ever seen, treatments need to get done yesterday. Ideally, local experts and fire fighters are striving for something in the middle — creative, expansive, and resident-supported solutions to the threat, which is on everybody’s minds right now. In a survey by the Truckee Fire Protection District in January of this year, 95% of residents said that the issue of most concern to them was wildfire.
Truckee/Tahoe has watched as other areas in California have seen debilitating wildfires wipe out towns, and this exigency of effective solutions has led to myriad local efforts from a new parcel tax to expansive monitoring technology, and from ever-refined evacuation protocols to movies and art shows.
Parcel Tax for Defensible Space
Last fall Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Bill Seline went to the agency’s board with the goal of implementing a more aggressive and effective wildfire mitigation plan. The district’s last five-year Community Wildfire Preparation Plan was coming to its sunset date, and although it had made huge steps in local forest treatment, the result was far from Seline’s hopes.
“Do we want to continue like we’re doing and put together a plan, and come up with these acres, and I’ll tell you in five years it won’t be done again, or do we want to ask people in Truckee if they want to get a better, faster pace, and bigger scale on wildfire prevention,” Seline said. “At the end of the day we have to take a higher road; it’s time to get the work done at all costs.”
In the aforementioned district survey, 79% of residents answered yes to wanting a faster pace and said they would support a $179 annual parcel tax to assist the fire agency in a large-scale mitigation effort over the next eight years. This tax and the details of its precise use will be on the ballot as Measure T in a special election in August.
According to Seline, the cornerstones of the measure include “removing dry brush, dead trees, and other fire hazards, add shaded fire breaks where needed … support defensible space efforts and hardening of homes and neighborhoods and critical infrastructure, and provide homeowners easy and inexpensive disposal options of their defensible space material and green waste.”
Green waste assistance constitutes one of the most important details of the plan, and will likely make up about half of the $3.7 million per year budget — the total budget adding up to almost $30 million over the measure’s 8-year lifespan. The majority of the town’s total land area is private, but Seline said many landowners are disincentivized to remove green waste due to the high cost and difficulty of disposing it. The few relatively close biomass facilities in Honey Lake and Quincy are no longer accepting green waste due to an overwhelming supply, and transporting waste to the Cabin Creek landfill can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. Seline wants to offer services ranging from curbside pickup of large quantities of green waste, chipping services, dead tree removal, and defensible space assistance for those who might have difficulty completing the work themselves.
“Reducing fuels is that gold standard for reducing fire intensity,” Seline said. Fires are going to happen regardless, he added, but if we can “get back to some sense of normalcy or a 100-year-ago forest structure,” then firefighting agencies will have a much better chance at containing the blazes before they grow to a catastrophic size.
A webcam-based fire intelligence service started by Graham Kent at the University of Nevada Reno in partnership with University of California San Diego, and University of Oregon placed its last camera in the Tahoe Basin last year, providing what Kent calls “complete service” over the region. Originally named Alert Tahoe because of its starting point, the system of more than 90 cameras just in the greater Tahoe region forewarns of fire activity via visual cues. When just a puff of smoke is spotted in a region, local fire departments can use the corresponding cameras to survey the fire start and make informed decisions in mere minutes regarding how to respond to the fire. The concept has been so successful that ALERTWildfire spread to other regions in California and the West, and is now going international, with a branch called BushfireLIVE currently being implemented in Australia.
“There’s no doubt that thousands and thousands of fires have been sized up and followed since [ALERTWildfire’s] inception nine years ago,” Kent said.
For example, the Meeks Fire near Sugar Pine Point State Park on June 11 occurred on a high winds day, and easily could have led to a large burn, but was stopped in time largely due to information gained through the nearby ALERTWildfire camera.
On a larger scale, Kent says the Lilac Fire in San Diego started on the worst fire condition day in the city’s history, Dec 7, 2017. The local fire crews had an eye on the ALERTWildfire camera within minutes and pushed out all 43 fire trucks in the county within three minutes. Kent says they were able to throw every resource they had at the Lilac blaze because other ALERTWildfire cameras showed no fire activity in the rest of the county.
Everyone agrees that without the cameras and the informed size-up response, the Lilac Fire would have been a very large devastating fire, with destruction in the billions of dollars range, so this experience “pretty much changed our trajectory,” Kent said.
A pivotal aspect of fire preparedness is the ability of a community to evacuate efficiently in order to allow the first responders to adequately fight the fire. Yet in an area such as Tahoe/Truckee with such a large visitor base, it can be challenging to get the word out quickly.
For those in the Tahoe Basin, the collaborative local fire agency partnership, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels team, has compiled a comprehensive web-based resource at tahoelivingwithfire.com. Visitors and locals can access information on the site about evacuation plans for specific areas around the lake, sign up for emergency notifications, design an evacuation checklist and a “go bag,” prepare their home for a possible evacuation, and more.
On the Truckee side, the website to visit is truckeepolice.com/disaster-preparedness/ where much of the same information listed above is available. A new resource that the Truckee police department and fire protection district have provided to the community is called Zone Haven — a resource that divides counties into zones based on potential evacuation routes unique to those areas.
Seline says the service will give the fire district and police department a more efficient resource for communicating with the public through to-the-minute updates and evacuation plans based on specific zones in Nevada County. For the service to work of course, it requires residents to go online and familiarize themselves with the site, which can be visited at community.zonehaven.com.
Check out this story (on p. 41 of our print edition) for tips on evacuating your home.
Public education and buy-in are vital keystones of fire preparedness, experts say, but public awareness campaigns and fire-related websites only reach so far into the collective psyche. To fill the gap, the local artistic community has stepped in to elevate wildfire education to an artform.
During the month of June, the Tahoe Art Haus provided a free virtual screening of the 40-minute documentary, Not If, But When: Wildfire Solutions, telling the stories of solutions-based approaches to wildfire preparedness happening locally (including several mentioned in this piece). If you missed the free screening, the film is available on amazon.com. Information can be found on other wildfire related films, with several being screened virtually, on the calendar page of tahoelivingwithfire.com.
A relationship between art and science — specifically the Nevada County Arts Council and the Sagehen Creek Field Station — has triggered a new artistic series that will take various forms. The partnership officially began in 2018 and has led to a handful of artist-in-residence programs at the field station, which is a forest health research facility located in the Sagehen Experimental Forest about 10 miles north of Truckee. Artists from around the region plus Washoe and Nisenan cultural leaders and tribespeople will be sharing knowledge and sparking conversation through the FOREST⇌FIRE art installation premiering at the Truckee Community Recreation Center in October, as well as at workshops and field trips designed for both children and adults.
“FOREST⇌FIRE is a multiplatform project designed to inspire a broad community conversation inspired by fire in the Sierra Nevada forest,” curator Michael Lewellyn said in a fundraising video. “[The project] addresses the causes and consequences of catastrophic fire, the forest’s role in safeguarding our watersheds, its value in mitigating climate change, and our role in saving it from ecological collapse.”