By Kyly Clark, Mayumi Elegado
Editor’s Note: At 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region announced a temporary closure of an additional 10 national forests due to “unprecedented and historic fire conditions throughout the state.” All 18 California national forests are closed as of 5 p.m., including Eldorado National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Plumas National Forest, Tahoe National Forest, and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. The USDA decision will be reevaluated daily. Find more info here.
Most people have heard that a pyrotechnic gender reveal ignited the El Dorado fire outside San Bernardino this past Saturday over Labor Day weekend. Many are asking, “how do we get it through our thick human skulls that this is fire season?” The Tahoe National Forest recently started a local program to help drill this fact into our collective psyche.
It’s an idea that has “been rattling around” for a while at TNF and that came to life when it was noted that wildland firefighters have responded to a dramatically increased number of escaped campfires this summer, said Joe Flannery, public affairs officer for TNF. In fact, the number of escaped campfires this year is more than double the previous record year — firefighters responded to 225% more fires thus far as compared to the second highest year in 2018, with a total of nine.
This is just the count for the campfires that ignited the adjacent area. The potential was far greater.
“Over 150 times so far this season, a Tahoe National Forest employee has discovered a fire burning in a homemade ring outside of a developed campsite that had the immediate potential of escaping, burning public resources such as our critical infrastructure, our water transportation system, as well as potentially burning in to our adjacent communities,” Flannery said.
The forest service believes it knows why there’s been such an increase. As the novel coronavirus pushes people to the outdoors, a growing number of visitors are finding refuge in the Tahoe National Forest, Flannery says, and many are coming for the first time.
This increase of visitors is great on one hand because it’s always encouraging to have people using public lands, he says, but with less experienced campers come increased issues of trash, human waste, and illegal campfires. He added that day-use recreation has skyrocketed, with probably as many people passing through trailheads as at campgrounds this year.
“Perhaps now more than ever, your national forest is calling … we want folks to visit their national forest and use this public resource in a time where it may matter the most,” Flannery said. “But while doing so, we really ask people to recreate responsibily. And the first item on that list is to follow our campfire restrictions.”
Clearly the forest service needed help getting the word out about how to visit responsibly. Thinking of ubiquitous campground hosts, forest officials thought, why not educate people on the doorstep of their forest recreation, as users hit the trail? Post people on a well-used trailhead to answer questions, provide guidance, and keep an eye on what’s happening. A call for volunteers was put out.
Jill and August Wheeler, a couple hailing from Idaho who are taking time off, applied. The two are healthcare-industry professionals who serve as apt educators, come with readymade mobile housing, and enjoy riding on both dirt and mountain bikes, thus have experience with multi-use recreation. It was a perfect fit.
On Aug. 1, the Wheelers became TNF’s first Trailhead Hosts and were assigned to the popular Sawtooth trailhead in Truckee, located in the backside of the Ponderosa Palisades neighborhood. The couple live on site in their self-customized Ford Transit 4×4 van, which became their permanent home in January, nestled in next to a large fallen tree and with its frontend pointed at the trailhead. A sign designating them as trailhead hosts sits on the side of the van facing the parking lot and their “door” is open 24/7.
The primary goal of them being there, August said, is keeping the area secure from fires and letting people know where camping is allowed and where it’s not. Fire restrictions were instated on May 29 this year in the Tahoe National Forest, which prohibit campfires everywhere except fire rings within specific developed recreation sites. During Red Flag days, the forest service maintains these guidelines.
Camping is only permitted in developed campgrounds on the whole stretch of land from the Sawtooth trailhead down to the Tahoe Basin. Two or three times a week, August says he notices people attempting to camp illegally. “Honestly, they might roll in at night and just not know,” he said. “I’ll touch base with them early on. Let them know where there is camping … I’ll just kind of steer them in the right direction.”
While the Wheelers help share forest service guidelines with users, they also are on-the-ground monitors.
“They are keeping a watch right now,” Flannery said. “It’s a busy time of year for wildfires. That’s a busy dispersed-recreation staging area and so it is nice to have an extra pair of ears and eyes out there in the field that can report back to our wildland firefighters for any potential risk.”
The Wheelers have had to call in “bad behavior” to the forest service or emergency personnel, such as illegal camping, rowdy drivers on the road, and of course, campfires, but they also help people better enjoy their visit. Over the past month, they’ve fielded questions about trail access and camping, provided detailed maps, and even aided bike riders in fixing their bikes. August estimates they interact with at least 20 people daily and knocks on their van door have come as early as 6 a.m. Mornings and evenings are the busiest times, he said, and they keep an eye out for people who look lost or are gathered around the map posted on a board at the trailhead, which isn’t detailed enough to effectively plan a ride or hike. When the Prosser Hill fire was burning, they fielded a lot of questions about it.
A salient issue this year is educating the public about Big Jack East, which is a forest service project to reduce risk of wildfire on approximately 2,000 acres. The project area is basically the entire portion east of Forest Service Road No. 06 in the Wheeler’s monitoring area and has resulted in many trail closures, which can get confusing. Also, it’s frankly not safe if you find yourself in the midst of a work zone, August said.
Speaking of safety, the Wheelers have helped people escape bodily harm even outside of Big Jack. While out on the trail, August says he ran into mountain bikers on the upper Big Chief area, a definitive black diamond trail. “They were not having fun, (it was) definitely above their skill level. You could tell they weren’t quite jiving,” August said. “I asked them if they needed help and they said, ‘We just need off this trail.’ I said, ‘I can help you with that.’”
In California, approximately 95% of wildfires are human-caused, and many are the result of escaped campfires, says the forest service. Illegal fires can be punishable by a fine up to $5,000 or six months in jail, but more importantly, if not controlled, they could lead to catastrophic wildfire and the destruction of neighboring communities. It’s a terrifying issue that’s top of mind for every resident. Fires in California have now burned a record 2.2 million acres in 2020, with the most dangerous part of the year to come.
“What we don’t want to happen is the fields continue to dry out, moving through to September, and temperatures to stay warm like this. We are going to have more lightning fires,” Flannery said. “We will be committing resources to suppressing those fires to protect local communities, and to protect our public resources and our public infrastructure. The worst thing we could have is completely avoidable fires that we also have to commit resources to.”
The education piece of the wildfire puzzle looks like it may continue in Tahoe National Forest. August and Jill are already talking with the agency about doing this next year. It’s a way to bring everyone into the fold, which August believes is key.
“I think we have to be respectful that there is nothing more public than public lands. It really, truly is here for everyone,” he said. “A little bit of respect and common courtesy goes a long way.”