[music comes up]
[background noise of Ezra and Susie driving]
Ezra: Susie Kocher and I are driving around the North Upper Truckee Neighborhood in South Lake Tahoe. We’ve stopped in front of a giant two story cabin.
Susie: “The word monstrosity comes to mind .”
Ezra: “This one?”
Susie: “It’s huge. Isn’t it? It’s lovely isn’t it?”
Ezra: “I would live there.”
Susie: “I would live there. It does have a lot of mulch. See that? Right up to the rock.”
Ezra: Susie’s a forester in Tahoe with the University of California. I like to think of her as a fire readiness cop.
Susie: “Oh and here's the other thing I don't like. Look, they have ornamental Junipers. I know I'm sounding like a broken record here.”
Ezra: “But why plant a little bomb next to your house.”
Ezra: Junipers are highly flammable. They contain volatile oils and sap that can easily burst into flames. A house down the road was in a similar condition with juniper shrubs right next to its deck and a picture window. Susie says even if everything else at a home is fire proofed these bushes could take the house down in a wildfire.
Susie: “What I picture happening, the embers get trapped in that near home vegetation. And because the placement of the plants underneath the wooden deck or underneath the fence next to a fence then slowly over time they catch those wooden components on fire and then there's no one here to put it out. And that heat either starts to build and catch the siding or breaks a picture window. And then the house burns from the inside out.”
Ezra: More than 250 homes burned in this neighborhood during the Angora Fire in 2007. Many have been rebuilt. But the fire scar is evident. Back then that was a huge fire, but in recent history there’s been these big mega-fires in California and these fires have Tahoe locals worried about a giant blaze wiping out parts of their communities.
Susie: “I think most homeowners have this concept that there's this wall of flame that comes and burns your house down and there's nothing you can do. But in fact there's a lot you can do.”
Ezra: Susie wanted to know how bad it is. So, she developed a fire readiness rating system. She’s applied it to more than 400 homes.
[background sound of car door closing]
Ezra: Susie’s brought me to another house that she thinks that could withstand a fire. It’s a red two-story with a few big pine trees in the yard.
Susie: “In this case it looks really good.”
Ezra: Her test is pretty simple. Just by looking at a house she can tell if it will make it in a forest fire.
Susie: “It’s got gravel within three feet of the house. And we found in the Angora Fire that that really helped save a lot of homes.”
Ezra: When she rates a house, these are some of the red flags: trees too close to houses, roofs made of shingles, and wood fences touching homes.
And when it comes down to it, Susie feels like Tahoe homeowners can do a lot better.
Ezra: “Is Tahoe fire ready?”
Susie: “[LAUGHS] No. I'm not sure anywhere in the Sierra is fire ready. There's still a lot to treat in the forest and there's still huge amounts of work that needs to be done to retrofit homes. I think after the Camp Fire and the Santa Rosa fires you know it's really sinking into most people in the Sierra Nevada. we're all feeling a little bit nervous and scared as the fire season comes forward this year. It's a dangerous situation. Absolutely.”
[music comes up]
Dan: “These aren’t just theories anymore.”
Stacy: “I don’t want the snow to go away.”
Simon: “Yes, Tahoe will change.”
MaryEllen: “I kind of feel like that endangered pika.”
Don: “Tahoe doesn’t control climate change it’s a victim of it.”
Ezra: From Capital Public Radio. This is TahoeLand.
Laurel: “It always snowed by the third weekend in September, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”
McClintock: “I want to see our forests restored. So, that Tahoe doesn’t burn the way Paradise did.”
Maddie: “Chasing the snow is a huge part.”
Devin: “It’s about the lake that’s why everyone is here.”
Jesse: “There are a lot of green lakes, there aren’t very many blue ones.”
Ezra: I’m Ezra David Romero.
There’s one thing that levels the playing field in Lake Tahoe. It’s fire and it doesn’t play favorites.
The big fear is that a blaze the scale of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise could happen in a place like South Lake where around 23,000 people live. The difference between a place like Paradise and Tahoe is that on any given day in Tahoe there could also be tens of thousands of tourists visiting around the lake.
There’s a lot being done in Tahoe when it comes to wildfires. Including a system of cameras around the lake that serve as digital lookouts. They've prevented dozens of fires from getting out of control. There’s also a new multi-agency climate action plan with high level guidelines and recommendations.
Yet Tahoe remains vulnerable. There are huge parts of the forest and hundreds of homes that need cleaning up.
And then there’s this: residents that don’t want to cut trees down or clear their properties. They want to keep that woodsy, outdoorsy feel. But just one fire getting out of control could destroy the Tahoe we know today.
Welcome To TahoeLand.
[music comes to an end]
Evacuation intercom: “Getting a report of a possible spot fire in the area of Gold Dust and Jackerio Area.”
[sound of a fire engine]
Ezra: Matt and Kathy Duggan just got a notice to evacuate.
Kathy: “Ok, but I don’t think we’re supposed to leave until it says mandatory, right?”
Ezra: Their vacation house is in the South Lake Tahoe neighborhood of Golden Bear.
[sound of Duggan’s leaving, “I’ve got the map” “Let’s Go” and car starting]
Ezra: It only has one way in and one way out. In an emergency, like a fire, it can be difficult to evacuate
Our data reporter Emily Zentner was with the Duggans during the recent evacuation drill. They were on their way to the safe zone a few miles away.
Emily: There was no fire on the horizon — this time.
Evacuation intercom: “This is only a drill. Residents of the Golden Bear tract only are requested to prepare for a voluntary evacuation.”
Emily: Matt and Kathy have owned their vacation home in Golden Bear since 2013, and they vacationed in Tahoe for years before that. So, fire has always been in the back of their minds. But since the Camp Fire in Butte County last year, they’ve been more and more concerned.
Matt: “The one way out of the neighborhood and that one road about a mile away is that's concerning to me and I can easily picture somehow the fire not being right at this house but down there. And then you have a bunch of people trapped inside this neighborhood.”
Emily: We eventually made it to the safe zone. That’s where I talked with Patti Assayag and Donarae Reynolds, who organized this whole drill with the Tahoe Fuels and Fire Team. That’s a multi agency collaboration involving a lot of fire groups around the lake.
Ezra: Yeah, and these two women, they’re super passionate about getting their neighborhood fire ready.
Emily: They totally are. And this drill is just the first step. Here’s Donarae.
Donarae: “We love it up here but there are a lot of things that we can do to become better prepared, There are more things that we can do besides being being prepared ourselves. You have to be proactive, you have to have a plan, you have to prepare yourself ahead of time for anything a flood, a tornado, a fire.”
Ezra: But this drill wasn’t just about practicing how to evacuate. It was about getting in people’s minds that fire is a reality.
Lake Valley Fire Chief Tim Alameda has a simple way to remember what to do when a fire is on its way.
Tim: “We want our communities to be we refer to as being fire adaptive that they understand. Ready set go. Get ready, get set. And when the time comes if you needed leave, leave.”
Ezra: Emily, did they make any changes after the practice evacuation?
Emily: Well, CalFire came through to check the neighborhood after the drill, and Golden Bear did really well: Of the more than 300 homes in the neighborhood, 96 percent meet CalFire defensible space requirements. That’s really remarkable for a neighborhood of that size. But not everyone wants to cut down the trees around their house ... it’s a tough pill to swallow for the Duggans.
Matt: “I've got say a lot of the reason I like the area and this house and this lot are the trees that are close by, that we feel it's in the forest. That's that's the danger. That's the tradeoff. But I don't want to cut down those trees and then be living on a bare lot. So I guess that's just the risk I take.”
Ezra: But it sounds like the drill was a success.
Emily: Patti, Donarae and the Tahoe Fuels and Fire Team definitely think so. They’ve planned a few other drills since. And they want to keep doing events like this to help other neighborhoods adapt to the growing threat of wildfire.
Ezra: There’s all this emphasis on making Tahoe fire ready ... because just one ember could grow into a huge blaze. Someone who knows a lot about this is Division Chief Chris Anthony with CalFire.
Chris: “The unprecedented is just becoming the norm. You know, the 3000 acre fire that destroys two or three hundred homes hardly even makes a new cycle now whereas 20 years ago that was a major fire in California that got a lot of people's attention.”
Ezra: High fire risk is an issue in California and the entire country. Chris says warming climates and their impact on fire severity is like a change in temperature in our bodies.
Chris: “You know our body temperature well it's ninety eight point six degrees right. Well imagine if every day it twas a one hundred point six degrees I think we would feel differently. And I think we would respond differently. And I think that's why you know that little change in temperature really can have a big difference in the way that it impacts the environment that we live in. And in weather really drives fire.”
Ezra: He says the best example of how warming temperatures and weather interact is by looking at the Carr Fire in Redding. That fire burned more than a thousand homes in 2018.
Chris: “It formed a fire tornado that moved into Redding. I mean a hundred and thirty six two hundred and sixty five miles an hour on that particular day in Redding It was one hundred and thirteen degrees the highest temperature recorded in Redding. We saw things we've never seen before. I mean that fire tornado was the largest tornado ever recorded in California's history.”
Ezra: He says the issue in the Sierra is that there are just too many trees. And many of them are dead as a byproduct of California’s recent five year drought. He says there’s more than 147 million dead trees across the Sierra Nevada.
Chris: “What it shows is that our forests right now are not as resilient as they need to be to the climate that we're seeing change and whether that's wildfire whether that's insects, whether that's disease whether that's drought we have to change the way that we're managing our forests because as the climate continues to change we're going to see those direct impacts just like we're seeing right now.”
Ezra: He hopes to see a change. Instead of fire prevention that just focus on communities, he wants huge patches of forest treated all at once.
Treatment can mean removing trees or burning parts of the forest on purpose to remove brush. There are projects like this in the works. The biggest is on the west side of the lake. Its goal is to restore 60,000 acres of forest.
Chris is part of a multi-agency team that is thinking about the forest in this way. He is making maps of each section around the lake that show what’s been treated and what hasn’t.
These “pre-attack plans” are supposed to inform everyone about what’s fire ready … and what’s not. And he admits there’s still a lot to do.
Chris: “We’re still working on it for sure. I don't think we can ever just like sit back and say we're good. Just because an area was treated 20 or 30 years ago we need to go back in and treat it again. You know forest grow, brush comes up. It is a constant process.”
Ezra: Alright, let’s bring Emily back to talk about some of the data she’s collected about wildfires in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Hey, Emily.
Emily: Hey Ezra!
Ezra: So, most people know in the back of their minds that climate change is part of what’s causing these big fires in California and around the world. But what’s actually happening?
Emily: Alright, let me teach you about something called the “climatic water deficit.”
Ezra: Well here you are again with these big scientific terms, as per usual. What does that mean?
Emily: So, it is a big scientific term and it sounds really confusing. But, basically, in a perfect world, there would be a certain amount of moisture in the ground and it would evaporate and transpire into the atmosphere. The climatic water deficit is a measure of how far away from that perfect world we are now.
Ezra: So what is it, like … lost potential?
Emily: Exactly. There’s a demand for evaporation in the ecosystem. The climatic water deficit tells us how much of that demand isn’t being met by the moisture we actually have in the soil. We’re looking at how much the potential evapotranspiration exceeds the actual evapotranspiration.
Ezra: I like that word. I think I learned it in like 10th grade. But, what does it mean for wildfires?
Emily: Well, if the ecosystem is trying to suck more water out of the soil than is available, that stresses the soil, right? It means that we have really dry soils because every bit of that moisture is being used to meet this demand for evapotranspiration.
That added stress on the forest means that trees are more susceptible to insects and disease. Enter the bark beetles … which ravaged trees during the drought and also made trees more susceptible to wildfire, because everything is so dry.
Ezra: And I expect you’re gonna bring some more doom and gloom here right? Cause you haven’t done that yet.
Emily: You know me so well. So you and I have talked a lot over the course of this podcast about the draft climate vulnerability assessment of the Lake Tahoe Basin and it has some projections about how the climatic water deficit is going to change by the end of the century. If carbon emissions continue to increase unchecked, the climatic water deficit is expected to double in some parts of the Lake Tahoe Basin by the end of the century. And in most parts of the lake, it’s projected to increase from anywhere between 30 to 50 percent.
Ezra: And that means that the risk of wildfire in Tahoe is going to get greater and more intense, right?
Emily: Exactly. I only have data for the parts of Tahoe that are in California. But, in those parts of the Tahoe Basin, the fire danger is considered very high by CalFire. There are a couple places more down towards the south shore where its a little bit lower but for the most part you see that highest fire danger ranking throughout the areas around the lake. I learned all of this from some really interesting map data that KQED data reporter Lisa Pickoff White shared with me.
Ezra: Well, as usual, our chat ends with me more worried than when we I started. Thanks for dropping some knowledge on us, Emily.
Emily: Thanks, Ezra.
Ezra: Jude Tornese is really worried about fire danger in Tahoe.
She has a second home on the westside of the lake in a community called Tahoma. The forested neighborhood is sandwiched between steep slopes and a two-line highway. She’s walking me around the house.
J: udi: “I love the trees but I don’t want them to cause any problems. No fires please.”
Ezra: “It looks like you have cleared a lot of stuff out here.”
Judi: “Yeah, we cleared it. See this is al new stuff that fell in the last week.”
Ezra: Judi’s husband built this cabin in 1968. Back then it had a shingle roof, which they’ve replaced with a composite one to make it less flammable. They split their time between Tahoe and the Bay Area. But no matter if she’s in Tahoe or not … she has a big fear.
Judi: “The worst thing would be to have a fire emergency on a July 4th weekend. Even when we came in just now from Tahoe City the backup to Tahoe City was at least a mile or two bumper to bumper cars traffic waiting to go through Tahoe City. That's not uncommon and this is not a busy weekend. I wouldn't even want to think about what would happen if there were a fire emergency I think there'd be panic for sure. It could be very ugly.”
Ezra: Judi’s neighborhood is surrounded by forest. She says it’s not a matter of if there will be a fire, but when it will ignite.
Judi: “One thing that people are really concerned about is how are we going to get out of here with a two lane highway. How can you get out safely. There's just not a lot of exits to get out of the area in an emergency.”
Ezra: Two lane highways with no exits.. There’s tons of spots like this around the lake.
Even though there’s a lot of work being done to prevent and prepare for wildfires, I get the sense from everyone I spoke with that a lot more needs to happen.
And like our last episode, the takeaway is simple: Everyone needs to do their part to make Tahoe fire ready. It can’t just be the Forest Service and fire agencies. Homeowners have to be responsible so they won’t lose their cabin or vacation getaway. Because if a fire sparks nearby… well, some neighborhoods are just really vulnerable.
Ezra: So during my reporting I spoke with dozens of Tahoe locals who say they are taking action to protect the environment.
And I noticed a pattern, something that was motivating all of them: They said one of their congress members doesn’t believe that humans are contributing to climate change.
Jenna: “I was just kind of angry I mean it’s his job to represent us and the needs of the district and the people... That can’t be just ignoring what is obviously a massive problem.”
Ezra: The intersection of climate change and politics is a real dividing issue … even in Tahoe, where many residents vote for Republicans who don’t embrace climate change policies. So next episode ... we’ll interview that congressman and explore the politics of climate change. And as always, don't forget to stick around after the credits for our Tahoe Tidbit … this time, it’s on the very real fire threat at some of the Sierra Nevada’s highest peaks.
Ezra: TahoeLand is edited by Nick Miller. Sally Schilling is our podcast producer. Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Emily Zentner is TahoeLand’s data reporter. Kacey Sycamore is collecting your questions about Tahoe and answering them.
Our web site is built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katy Kidwell.
Linnea Edmeier is the executive editor. Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer. And our associate producer is Gabriela Fernandez.
We want to give a special shoutout to our events guru here at the station. Thank you Tashina Brito for all your work.
Our music is by artist CharlestheFirst. He’s from Tahoe.
To make sure you don’t miss any episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Check out our website capradio.org/tahoeland for videos, photos, additional stories and more.
I’m Ezra David Romero…. Thanks for listening to TahoeLand... from Capital Public Radio.
[theme music comes to end]
[background sound of Nick hiking]
Nick: So just west of Lake Tahoe is another jewel in the sky … Desolation Wilderness.
My name is Nick Miller and I’m the editor of TahoeLand.
Desolation is this 64-thousand acre slice of pure Sierra Nevada outdoors. We’re talking miles of trails … including some of the Pacific Crest Trail. Close your eyes and envision long treks over bedrock granite, beautiful Tahoe vistas and pristine alpine lakes.
[Sounds of Nick hiking continues]
Nick: “It’s late in the afternoon and I’m descending into desolation after taking a moment to really just enjoy the vista from Maggies peak.”
Nick: But the threat of wildfire is very real in Desolation … even though there was a ton of snow when I visited recently in August.
[sound of the creeks and Nick hiking]
Nick: “Frankly it’s pretty really cold up here. I mean we’re at more than 9,000 feet elevation and between you and me, I didn’t pack the right clothing but we’re having a great time.”
Nick: I ran into wilderness ranger Courtney Rightsel at Dicks Lake. She works for the Tahoe Basin management unit … and she says not to be fooled by all the snow and rushing water.
Courtney: “I mean, yes the water is still flowing and the lakes are high. But there’s still imminent fire danger in this area because we have not had a good rainfall at this elevation for probably over two months.”
Nick: Part of a rangers job is to prevent stuff that leads to forest fires. Courtney says she sees hikers and campers … doing all kinds of strange things that might accelerate fire danger.
Courtney: “Camping on an island, having a fire on said island, leaving trash on said island, and then having us having to figure out how to get all that out. … And we’ve had issues with people bring skateboards in the wilderness, and trying to skateboard and do weird things with that.”
[sound of hiking continues]
Nick: When I was leaving Desolation, I could hear the winds pick up … and I started wondering to myself, is all this going to be here … the next time … when I come back.
For Tahoeland, I’m Nick Miller.
[sound of footsteps]