Fire Season in the Face of COVID-19

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Recap

A special appreciation to  the experts (and there were quite a few!) who took the time to join the discussion and share their valuable insight. We feel the value of our Tahoe Talks is particularly relevant in cases like these, when the topic crosses jurisdictional boundaries and the agencies involved convene to further the wellbeing and safety of people across the Tahoe/Truckee region.

June 15’s community conversation was jam-packed with great data and new information about fire season and how things have (or haven’t) changed this year. Our biggest takeaway: Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, preparation for and response to wildfire doesn’t change; we still have to be ready.

Below are key points brought up during the meeting. Find a link to the video recording as well as a list of shared URLs. In the spirit of spreading confirmed information, and to help #KeepTahoeSmart, we encourage you to share this enlightening community conference call in your circles. Forward this email, post the video on your social media pages, and talk about it in conversations.

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We are looking at an “above average season” for fire

  • Last year there were nearly 8,000 wildland fires across the state, burning just shy of 300,000 acres, and that was after a wetter winter than we had this year. As of May 1, 2020, there was 59% of average snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which means we’ll have “more significant burning conditions earlier in the year,” said Cal Fire Unit Chief Brian Estes. “… We’re going to start to see significant activity here in the next month.”

COVID-19 changes a few things, but not a lot

  • A wildfire evacuation trumps any COVID-19 concerns in terms of getting people moving. If you get the order to move, you move.
  • Masks: Make sure they’re in your to-go bag for emergency evacuation! Lt. Paul Long with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said, “We can’t guarantee … there’ll be anyone to screen or encourage social distancing [at evacuation centers].” (To further clarify, Long said because the sheriff’s office is the only full-time operation in light of an evacuation, officers would likely be conducting evacuations before any of their partners, for example, the Office of Emergency Services, had a chance to set up to receive evacuees. Thus, it’s likely that people arriving at an evacuation destination might have no one there until the sheriff’s office’s partners could mobilize or an officer could be spared to provide further organization.)
  • Speaking of evacuation centers, the Red Cross is approaching things differently in terms of people congregating, says Mike Romero of Placer’s Health and Human Services. In light of the coronavirus, the Red Cross’s goal is to not use settings like fairgrounds or an event center, but hotels. Food distribution is also up for change, with pre-packaged options.

“You provide the defense, we’ll provide the offense”

  • The 2007 Angora Fire was a big wake-up call, and since then local fire agencies have banded together to treat nearly 100% of initial treatments in undeveloped areas adjacent to people’s homes. The wildlife-urban interface (WUI) has been pretty well taken care of.
  • Since the Angora Fire, there’ve been over 40,000 defensible space inspections in the Basin, and last year, North Tahoe Fire performed 2,000 of those alone.
  • There are four key areas that local fire districts are focusing a lot of effort on:
    • Reducing fuel on large pieces of land
    • Doubling down on defensible space
    • Encouraging participation in Firewise communities
    • Abiding by the campfire ban
  • Did you know 80% of fires within the Tahoe Basin are human caused? Coming in at number one is unattended campfires. In response, last year in April Truckee Fire implemented a ban on open campfires, eliminating all residential campfires/bonfires that burn anything other than gas. There’s not a long history of the campfire ban, but there are encouraging numbers: In 2018 there were 15 escaped or abandoned campfires in the fire district; in 2019, after the ordinance was in place, there were only three. On fire starts, 2018 saw 22 while 2019 had 16. It’s worth noting that there were favorable weather conditions last year, which likely played a role in the ban’s success. Truckee’s fire ban has been adopted by neighboring districts.
  • On fire insurance, Placer County District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson said this is a challenge she’s hard at work on — working diligently with the state insurance commissioner and California’s legislature to find appropriate solutions for all. Word to the wise: North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Michael Schwartz says that everything you can do to prepare your house against wildfire will help you maintain fire insurance.
  • Solution: Members of the public must be part of the solution and show personal responsibility in preparing for wildfire (i.e., the “defense” from the subtitle). Look to your fire protection district to understand resources available to you (see the list of links below). If you see something possibly dangerous, call 911 and let the experts go out and determine whether it’s safe and legal (the “offense”). 

Communication is your best friend

  • There are multiple avenues for staying alert and aware during an emergency situation. Nixle, Placer Alert, Code Red are all notification systems used by local authorities during an emergency. Also, Holly Powers with Placer’s Office of Emergency Services pointed out, utilize social media for good. Are you following the right agencies across those platforms? Conversations are taking place at the different agencies about how to best leverage social mediums. 
  • Sara Smith, a resident and artist living on the North Shore, shared her idea of an art campaign: a poster contest capturing key sound bites for wildfire preparedness and promoting those messages throughout the community.
  • Take a look at the links below for additional fire resources:

These are a few of the key points from the conference call, but to get the full monty, review the full conference call video here. 

Future Tahoe Talks Topics

Here’s a running list of potential future topics. We welcome your ideas! 

  • Evacuation plans during a wildfire
  • Second homeowners in the age of coronavirus
  • Struggles with rents and mortgages
  • New business models and ideas
  • How to handle kids while you’re on a conference call