Wildfire in the Sierra knows no season


Photo: Emily Tessner

Erin Holland and Eric Horntvedt from the North Tahoe Fire Protection District urge residents to be prepared for wild fires.

It’s 8 a.m., Nov. 8, 2018 and Lisa Kiehn, a Paradise, Calif. native, is getting ready to take her son to school. By 8:30 a.m. her house and carport were on fire, and at 8:45 a.m., after evacuating to the Raley’s parking lot, the sky stretching all the way to Chico was black with soot.

“I smelled smoke and went outside and in a matter of minutes the embers were everywhere,” Kiehn said. “The fire had jumped to the ridge behind our house and within 15 minutes it seemed like everything was burning.”

Last fall, the Camp Fire in Paradise claimed the lives of 88 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in the United States in at least a century.

“It happened so quickly, it seemed like everyone in our neighborhood was going in different directions,” Kiehn said. “It was immediate chaos.”

These days, wildfire in the state of California knows no season.

Wildfires in the western United States have become commonplace, as drought has impacted our forests and communities.

Meanwhile, in the Tahoe basin, the promise of spring is afoot and the snow banks are still high. Many locals are dreaming of the lazy days of summer, the beach and barbecues. However, the danger of wildfire remains high.

This year, according to the National Resources Conservation Service, Tahoe has accumulated 178 percent of the median snow pack. Reservoirs will be full and fine fuels, like grasses and shrubs, will experience amplified growth.

“Increased snowpack and high moisture content in the soils lead to exponential growth of grasses and shrubs,” said Eric Horntvedt, North Tahoe Fire Protection District’s forest fuels coordinator. “As fine fuels grow and dry out, they will create horizontal fuel loading.”

This extreme abundance of grass growth can lead to above normal fire danger, especially for the lower elevations down from the Sierra crest and into the Sacramento valley.

In addition, the lower elevations, which are less prepared for increased snowload, may have experienced the destruction of trees and shrubs, which contribute to the dead vegetation that feeds fire.

“Snow damage brings the fuel to the ground,” Horntvedt said. “This also increases horizontal fuel loading.”

As the snowpack melts there will be a delayed release: May and the first half of June should still be pretty wet, but this can change depending on location. Typically, delayed release will push back fire danger to the end of June or the beginning of July.

Erin Holland, North Tahoe Fire Protection District’s public information officer, says being prepared is the key to surviving a potential wildfire.

Make a plan

Having a “Go Bag” ready, filled with masks to filter out large particulates, headlamps in case of power outage, food, water, a battery-operated radio and essentials to last 72 hours can help to save a life.

“We all have been taught to call 911 and that someone else is going to come rescue us,” Holland said. But extreme conflagrations can be uncontrollable. “This is no longer true, we have to take personal responsibility with wildfire.”

Equally important is having a safe place to escape. Locate the nearest open space where vegetation is scarce, and  away from potential flames.

The lake should not be the first choice for residents, as high winds and overcrowding on the water are a possibility.

“Practice evacuating, especially if you have pets, kids, or family with special needs,” Holland said. “Know your escape route so that you can get out in less than 5 minutes.”

Things like knowing how to manually open a garage door in case the power is out, or checking on a neighbor who needs assistance could save a life.

Be fire aware

Residents are also encouraged to download the CalFire App, as well as sign up for alerts in whichever county they reside and the counties that border it, so that if evacuation is imminent they have the best chance to escape unharmed.

“Fire events are dynamic, have the mindset to be prepared, listen to the updates.” Horntvedt said.

Locals can also tune in to the AM radio station 1610 for information in case of wildfire.

Hardening your home is also of paramount importance. Remove build-ups of pine needles, and other potential fuels from around  your home and make sure that there is nowhere vulnerable in the structure where ignition is a possibility.

“There should be a non-combustible zone five feet around your house.” Horntvedt said.

The Tahoe Network of Fire-Adapted Communities will perform a free defensible space evaluation. It help locals determine a course of action to achieve fire safety.

Because Tahoe is a place where many houses remain vacant, keeping an eye out for each other is another vital piece of the puzzle.

“The Tahoe basin is such a different landscape, resolve to be ready.” Horntvedt said. “In being fire adapted people are serving not only their homes but are also serving their communities.”

For more information on Sierra Nevada College’s Fire Safety Protocols visit: