By Emily Zentner, Ezra David Romero, Danielle Venton, Raquel Maria Dillon
Susie Kocher watched with increasing dread as the Caldor Fire roared across the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, churning toward her home near the base of Echo Summit.
From high along the granite ridge nearby, the view of Lake Tahoe is normally pristine — a cerulean ocean in the sky, dotted with boats and casinos lining the pine forest along the South Shore. But for two weeks at the end of August, smoke as brown as car exhaust clouded the basin’s air.
As Kocher well knows, having worked tirelessly for more than a decade to prepare this community for a wildfire as a UC Cooperative Extension forestry adviser, under almost every tree near South Lake Tahoe is a house.
She feared the fast approaching edge of the fire, with its flames licking beyond 100 feet in the air. But she worried most about showers of red hot embers, carried over a mile beyond the fire’s edge by wind gusts, stealing entrance into these homes through open vents or siding gaps, burning them from the inside out.
“A firefighter is not going to help your home if the ember goes in through the attic,” she said.
As the fire approached, she cleared away needles and brush from around her house. With their truck, Kocher’s husband, Rick George, hauled their sailboat and other fire hazards to a vacant lot away from their home. She collected her “wedding dress, my husband's silver and his mother's wedding dress,” irreplaceable items to take with her when they evacuated.
On Aug. 30, officials ordered South Lake Tahoe to evacuate immediately. She joined thousands of others leaving en masse, her face obscured by a heavy blue and red respirator to protect her lungs from the hazardous smoke.
Behind her as she drove away, ash and a hazy amber glow floated around her home.
The ‘wake-up moment’
When the Valley Fire in Lake County destroyed 1,300 homes and killed four people in 2015, the wildfire community called it a “wake-up moment” to an era of catastrophic wildfire in California, driven in part by climate change.
The Caldor, Dixie and other fires this summer make it crystal clear that California’s wildfire crisis is escalating. About 4.3 million acres burned in 2020, a record that could be surpassed by this year’s extreme fire season.
The state is in a dangerous place. Scorching summers coupled with tinderbox dry forests render fire containment ineffective — especially when it's hot, windy or a combination of the two.
When the Caldor Fire burned into the Tahoe Basin, it looked like this city, a center of gravity for culture in this part of the Sierra, could (and many thought would) burn.
But it did not, thanks to the 3,500 firefighters, a timely shift in the winds and years of fire preparations by a myriad of players.
The Caldor Fire showed the danger California faces, but also a path forward, beginning with acceptance that wildfires are a part of our lives and not inherently bad.
California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot acknowledged as much when he detailed about $1 billion in new spending for fire breaks, tree thinning and other measures meant to prevent catastrophic wildfire.
“We are not going to respond our way out of this wildfire crisis,” he said.
A “confluence of all the right ingredients” coalesced to drive the Caldor Fire’s erratic fire behavior, accelerating the arrival of conditions expected to emerge over the next century, said Benjamin Hatchett, an atmospheric scientist with the Desert Research Institute in Reno.
“I hope Tahoe is the wake-up call,” he said. “We all need to get together and figure out what we’re going to do so that it’s not Tahoe City next year or Truckee next year.”
‘Hat’s off’ for forest thinning
The Caldor Fire ignited on Aug. 14 near Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, and quickly decimated Grizzly Flats, burning a school, church and the post office, leaving little left in the mountain hamlet. To date, the fire has burned more than 1,000 buildings and north of 220,000 acres. Officials lifted the last of the evacuation orders just this week.
A few days earlier, the Dixie Fire burned across Kettle Ridge, west of Susanville, and into the Great Basin, becoming the first known wildfire to run across the Sierra Nevada. The flames ripped through high elevation forests usually too saturated with heavy snow melt to burn.
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
“We don't have any record of that happening before,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said, adding the blaze — 32 times the size of San Francisco — “was exceedingly resistant to control.” The Dixie Fire is California’s largest single fire on record, having consumed nearly 1 million acres across five counties.
By the end of August, the Caldor Fire had burned into the Tahoe Basin, becoming the second recorded fire to cross the Sierra Nevada. Its erratic fire behavior mirrored the Dixie Fire to the north, and residents watched with alarm as the embers ignited spot fires miles in front of the flames, like missles shot from behind enemy lines, rendering firefighter containment lines — painstakingly hacked with hand tools and bulldozers — essentially useless.
For firefighters, this year has been a grueling slog, and the last two weeks of August were some of the worst.
"Since we got here, our first time actually sleeping was yesterday," said Micah Conant, nearly a week into a shift at the Caldor Fire with his Tahoe Douglas Fire Department crew.
The firefighters’ main objective: keep the blaze out of South Lake Tahoe, a dense mountain city of more than 21,000 people, and the surrounding communities, home of Kocher and thousands more.
As a first line of defense, crews with bulldozers scraped earth bare against homes in Meyers and Christmas Valley, where they expected to make a desperate stand, said Phil Heitzke, a fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.
When the wildfire charged towards the fire line, “we were getting 100 or 150 foot flame lengths,” Heitzke said.
But suddenly, the flames lowered to the forest floor. Firefighters crossed the dozer lines, safely able to work next to the flames, steering the wildfire away from the homes.
“The fire behavior dropped down as soon as it hit this unit,” Heitzke said.
If crews hadn’t thinned small trees and brush here a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible.
“The canopy is open, and that’s the key thing with these fires, having that open canopy so the [wildfire] can’t sustain a crown run” where the fire burns from treetop to treetop, Heitzke said.
“For the folks who have been working on these projects the last two decades my hat's off to them.”
A built-in buffer
Tens of thousands of acres have been treated in the Lake Tahoe Basin in the last 15 years, more than is typical for forested mountain communities. The work is not cheap. Paying crews with chain saws to thin overgrown forests can cost around $2,000 an acre.
Comparing that against the value of homes saved — recent home sales in the area have garnered a median price of $750,000 — it looks like a good investment. But here, Lake Tahoe is privileged. The city has a much larger population than most mountain towns and boasts a wealthy, largely white conservation community that can afford to pay for expertise needed to get good at winning competitive grants. “There’s a political pressure there," Heitzke said.
Residents and others have treated more than 40% of the Tahoe Basin since 2008 with mechanical thinning and “good fire,” the intentional burning of thick underbrush to slow down future wildfires. Additionally, hundreds of homeowners around the Tahoe Basin have prepared their houses and properties to withstand wildfire including cleaning needles, trees and debris around homes, and installing new roofs and vent covers to prevent embers from getting inside a house.
A map of treatments in the area shows an extensive, though patchy, jigsaw puzzle of mechanical thinning and pile burns on both sides of Highway 50. The Forest Service said in the past five years many of those fuel treatments in the Tahoe Basin included prescribed fire.
"South Lake Tahoe and that whole area has done an absolutely extraordinary job of doing a lot of work to reduce fuels," said Crystal Kolden, a UC Merced fire scientist.
Bob Larsen’s home is about a block away from where the Caldor Fire stopped. He credits the areas of treated forest with saving his and his neighbors homes and said the 2007 Angora Fire, which incinerated 240 homes southwest of South Lake Tahoe, galvanized the community around fire preparations.
“[Angora] highlighted the importance of doing something about the overstocked forest and trying to make sure that homeowners are doing the work that they need to do to provide that defensible space,” Larsen said.
Because of forest treatments, he said his neighborhood had a “buffer between sort of the very hot fire and fire that was more manageable, I think is a big part of why they were able to succeed and why we are so lucky.”
Fire here is expected
For roughly four decades, California wildfires have advanced higher and higher into the backcountry, rising in elevation at a rate of 25 feet per year, with the largest growth in the Sierra Nevada, according to a new study from researchers at UC Merced and elsewhere.
Researchers say the fire’s spread is driven by warmer and dryer conditions with snow melting earlier in the year. Warming temperatures have driven a fivefold increase in summertime forest fires across California, felt most dramatically in the Sierra Nevada, according to research published in 2019, a year before last summer's record-torching fire season.
According to the California Tahoe Conservancy’s assessment of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s vulnerability to climate change, the basin can expect to see higher temperatures, more extreme storms, less snow, more drought stress and larger areas burned by wildfires over the next century.
“It's something that's happening today,” said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Pro Tem Devin Middlebrook. “[Preparing for big fires] isn't something that we can put off for 20 or 30 years,” he said.
Culture of suppression
Fire experts say a policy of fire prevention has left forest stands across the state thick with overgrown brush and trees.
After the Great Fire of 1910, which burned 20 million acres across the northwest and killed 86 people, California forest managers began actively suppressing wildfires. The majority of the tens of millions of acres of forest in California are controlled by the U.S. Forest Service. In 1935, that agency passed the 10 a.m. rule, a mandate dictating any fire must be controlled by the next day at 10 a.m. Although this policy was rescinded in 1974, this way of managing forests has led to more than 80 years of suppressing fires by federal firefighters and Cal Fire.
What experts say is often missing from this conversation is the racist removal of Native American people from California in the mid-19th century. More than 16,000 were killed, others were forced onto reservations and many were enslaved.
Along with their physical beings, the knowledge of taking care of the land through forest thinning and cultural burns was also removed. This action resulted in overgrown forests, said Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert at Chico State.
If California was “still stewarded continuously with Indigenous fire, we would definitely not see the same level of fires that we're seeing,” he said in 2020.
There are indications that the state is changing its fire policies. Having spent $3.4 billion on wildfire suppression last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom earmarked about $1 billion in new spending for fire breaks, forest thinning, and other measures to stop megafires before they get out of control. Crowfoot, of the Natural Resources Agency, indicated the state is prepared to expand “upfront, proactive actions,” and the package includes $19 million for the state to work with tribes on prescribed burns, up from just $1 million last year.
California lawmakers have also passed a bill that wouldn’t hold prescribed burners liable if a fire escapes it’s containment lines, unless they are grossly negligent. Lastly, a federal Senate infrastructure bill could provide more than $16 billion over a decade for fuels management.
Megafires push forest communities to the brink
A trail of cars lined Highway 50 during South Lake Tahoe’s evacuation on Aug. 30, but Bill Schaeffer, wearing a T-shirt, the same moody gray color as the smoke-darkened sky, pushed his bike toward the fire. The scruffy man with long locks hurried to gather his belongings at home in time to catch a bus out of the city.
Just two weeks prior, Schaeffer, 68, was unhoused, like he had been on and off for almost two decades. He recently moved into a small, affordable home with the help of a local support group for unhoused people.
"If I lose my place to live, then I'm going to probably be forced back to being homeless again," he said, noting that rents here, like elsewhere throughout California, have risen to be "sky high."
Known to the outside world as a sparkling tourist area, South Lake Tahoe is home to the resort staff, bartenders and thousands of others who live and work there, keeping the machinery of the place humming.
Construction workers Jose Mora and Henry Jose Mendoza fled South Lake Tahoe, too, taking shelter at an evacuation center in Carson City, Nevada. Mendoza only had the clothes on his body because they didn’t have time to pack before leaving. The friends were confused whether or not they needed to evacuate.
“We were looking at Facebook, and then the news,” said Mora. “We were just waiting. Then we received a call and we [saw] the map and we just started getting whatever we could.”
On the eve of the evacuation, Donarae Reynolds and her husband bustled around their home in the Golden Bear neighborhood just outside South Lake Tahoe, packing medications, clothes and other essentials into their cars and camper trailer.
They’d removed unrecoverable family photos from the walls, and stowed their passports, living trust and other important documents in a safety deposit box at the bank. Their neighborhood was ready when the evacuation order came in.
“We all simply got in our cars and waved to each other and we took off,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds’ neighborhood was uniquely prepared for this day to come. In 2019, Reynolds and her neighbors held an evacuation drill to prepare for disasters like the Caldor Fire. They’ve also held clean-up days and got residents to sign up for emergency alerts.
“If it were a situation where you had no warning and everyone just had to scramble, I think that it would have been a totally different kind of an evacuation,” Reynolds said.
The neighbors kept up with each other while they were evacuated, trading Ring doorbell camera footage and aerial views of the neighborhood to see if the fire had reached it. The fire spared their homes this time, and they’ve since returned to Golden Bear.
A matter of survival
Back in Tahoe with her home and its two decks still standing, Kocher said she feels fortunate to live in South Lake Tahoe with ample fire prevention and suppression assets, especially when nearby communities don’t have the same resources to stop the flames.
“I'm concerned for those communities,” she said. “It's a matter of survival unless we get our act together.”
It’s easy to blame the fires all on a warming climate, but UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens said the lack of prevention efforts and the overgrown forests amount to the “vast majority” of the state’s current problem.
Hatchett, with the Desert Research Institute, said that still-rising temperatures, increasingly arid conditions, and other impacts of climate change is like “pouring gas” on wildfires and why “we need climate action now.”
But even climate action, he admits, won’t stop the sheer volume of dead brush and trees in forests from burning or prevent the amount of global warming already baked into the atmosphere. But, yet, he has hope.
“We're not going to stop that train,” he admitted, “but we might be able to divert it.”
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