Was Last Year’s Historic Open-Fire Ban in Truckee Effective? What’s the Scoop on the Region’s Fire Restrictions This Year?

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JUNE 24, 2020: Two recently used campfires were seen after the fire ban went into effect, just past the Castle Peak trailhead on Donner Summit. Photo by Becca Loux/Moonshine Ink

Truckee Fire Protection District led the way with a historic open-fire ban last year, with encouraging results. Other districts followed suit. Read on to find out what’s banned in your district this fire season.

Don’t know which is your fire district? The Lake Tahoe Basin Fire District map shows fire jurisdictions: tahoelivingwithfire.com/get-informed/find-your-fire-district/

Truckee Fire Protection District

The TFPD is a known innovator, having passed the region’s first open-fire ban last season. While one year’s data isn’t enough to conclusively state that improvements were made based on the ban, the TFPD team feels that restrictions were a success. Plus, as you’ll read below in our interview with North Tahoe fire protection districts, other regions in the basin are following suit.

Of note is that official fire season starts in the region are signaled by the time that restrictions go into effect and vary year to year and jurisdiction by jurisdiction (see North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District as an example, which falls under the Lake Tahoe Basin Lake Tahoe Management Unit which went into effect overall for the Tahoe National Forest on May 30 of this year, yet NLTFPD instituted those regulations on April 21, early due to conditions.)

This year TFPD’s ban went into effect June 15, coordinating with Cal Fire’s county bans and permit requirements, which went into effect the same day. Here is the low down on TFPD’s ban last year and how it informed this year’s regulations.

How did last year’s first-ever campfire ban affect the fire season? What changes/updates (if any) have you made to the bans this year?

Yes, we believe the ban was effective. About 95% of wildfires [reported to Cal Fire] are caused by people and campfires are one of the most preventable causes.

We did have a lot of people report illegal fires and barbecues last season after the ordinance went into effect. Unfortunately, our reporting system is really difficult to identify these particular call types so all I can say is anecdotally that there were maybe 50 to 100 calls to 911 throughout the six-month fire season. 

For fire starts, in 2018 we had 22 wildfire starts but last year we had 16.

In 2018, we responded to 15 escaped or abandoned campfires and last year, after the ban took effect, we responded to only three, which was encouraging. These are all good signs but there were other factors at play like favorable weather conditions last year, so it is difficult to make any assessments on the small sample and only one year of data.

The Truckee Fire Protection District Burn Ban is a local ordinance that was passed in 2019. We revisited the ordinance in January 2020 at a board meeting to get public input and opinions for this season. Although there are some people that oppose the ban, we believe the majority of the public is in favor of it, willing to sacrifice a summer nicety for wildfire safety.

The ban went into effect June 15, once Cal Fire called for a burn suspension. There were no changes to the ban from the prior year. However, in the last few years the ban, or something similar, has been implemented in all the other North Tahoe fire districts making it a regional ban.

In 2007, the Angora Fire (South Lake Tahoe) was started from an abandoned campfire that wasn’t properly extinguished. It burned 3,000 acres and destroyed 242 homes in an afternoon!

What exactly is banned this year?

residential campfire/bonfires that burn anything other than gas

barbecues that burn charcoal, wood, or lump charcoal

ceramic charcoal grills (i.e. Big Green Egg)

briquette fuel-based smokers

wood shavings added for flavor

Find TFPD’s full ordinance on their website, truckeefire.org.

How common is it for people to report illegal campfires on neighbors or fellow campers?

We have noticed the call volume has increased on the neighborhood-concerned campfire calls to 911. We will send a fire engine out to extinguish and educate people about illegal fires. We have also noticed a number of people switching from wood campfires and charcoal BBQs to gas appliances, which are legal fires in the ordinance.

How do you know who is the appropriate party to call to report unsanctioned fires?

Report illegal fires by calling 911.

* This response is echoed unanimously across the board by all three districts.

North Tahoe Fire Protection District added, for Placer County: “To report illegal fireworks please call Placer County Sheriff non-emergency at (530) 886-5375. Call 911 if you feel the activity is an immediate threat to safety. To report unauthorized activity at short-term/vacation home rentals in Placer and El Dorado counties, notify vhrinfo@edcgov.us or the county sheriff at (530) 621-6600.”

~ Laura Brown, battalion chief, and Bill Seline, fire chief, Truckee Fire Protection District

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, North Tahoe Fire Protection District

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District serves Incline Village/Crystal Bay, and is not to be confused with North Tahoe Fire Protection District. NTFPD protects 32 square miles on the North and West shores of Tahoe, including Kings Beach and Tahoe City among other communities, and additionally provides services to Alpine Meadows and Meeks Bay Fire Protection District. NTFPD described their service area borders “from Crystal Bay at the state line down to Emerald Bay and out to Alpine Meadows.”

We asked both districts many of the same questions as they’ve implemented open fire bans influenced by and following Truckee’s, so one or both districts respond to our queries below.

Foolish Flames: These campers ignored the posted no campfire signs at Long Lake on Father’s Day. Although a woman present at the site claimed to have a permit, a passerby ensured she sufficiently doused the fire since he knew campfires are now banned. Photo by Juliana Demarest/Moonshine Ink

Do you have a ban on open campfires much like the one in Truckee? What are the geographical parameters? When was it instituted? What effects are we seeing?

NLTFPD: We typically follow the Lake Tahoe Basin Lake Tahoe Management Unit fire restrictions during fire season, which went into effect May 30 until further notice. [Yet NLTFPD put those restrictions into effect even earlier, on April 21 this year, due to dry climate]. This means no charcoal or solid fuel (wood) barbecues and campfires on any beach in the Lake Tahoe Basin. IVGID beach charcoal grills are allowed for cooking in the designated areas; however, not during red flag weather conditions.

NTFPD: Yes, the ban on wood-burning and charcoal appliances went into effect on June 15 when fire season was declared, and will remain in effect until fire season is over. Outdoor wood and charcoal fires are banned all year in short-term/vacation rental homes. Fireworks are always illegal in California.  The effects we are seeing have been mostly positive, with much of the response from the community being supportive of the new code.

Was there any form of a ban last year, and if so what were the results?

NTFPD: Last year our restrictions allowed wood-burning fire pits and chimineas so long as they had a one-quarter-inch wire mesh screen per California Public Resource Code. The adoption of our 2019 fire code aligned our code with the Truckee, Squaw Valley, and Northstar fire agencies and only permits gas and propane fire pits/grills and pellet smokers/grills during fire season. Burning of charcoal is no longer permitted during fire season. Also new with this code adoption is that all sources of open flame are banned during red flag/critical fire weather conditions. (In 2007, the Washoe Fire was started by a propane grill that blew over in red flag winds and five homes were destroyed.) We do not have jurisdiction over U.S. Forest Service or state campgrounds.

How common is it for people to report illegal campfires on neighbors or fellow campers?

NLTFPD: It is quite common because no one wants to see or experience the devastation from wildfire in our Lake Tahoe Basin.

NTFPD: We receive several informal calls and inquiries each week during business hours, and an engine company will be dispatched if someone calls 911 about an illegal fire. 

~ Tia Rancourt, public education/information officer, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, provided the responses for NLTFPD. Erin Holland, public information officer, North Tahoe Fire Protection District, provided NTFPD responses.