Tackling Tahoe’s wildfire worries: Campfires, forest health biggest threats

USDA Forest Service conducts prescribed burns of piles in the forest. | USDA

Wildfires loom in the Tahoe region every summer. Smoke and fear fill the air. The Caldor Fire in 2021 caused the evacuation of 50,000 residents on the South Shore and decimated 221,835 acres.

According to the USDA Forest Service, 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans. This includes campfires left unattended, burning debris, equipment uses, discarded cigarettes, firearms and arson. The Forest Service determined that the Caldor Fire was likely started by a bullet strike. Abandoned campfires are the No. 1 cause of fires in the Tahoe Basin, according to Carrie Thaler, forest fire chief for Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Other causes of wildfires include poor forest health and weather conditions such as drought and lightning strikes.

Threat from campfires
Millions of tourists visit Tahoe annually with camping one of the top activities. Abandoned campfires that aren’t properly extinguished and illegal campfires rank as the main cause of wildfires locally.

Campfires are only allowed in metal fire rings in designated camping areas. Fires using a ring of rocks are not allowed and no campfires are allowed outside designated camping areas.

Make sure to douse campfires before going to bed, and never leave a fire unattended. Keep a bucket of water and a shovel on hand to extinguish the fire.

Learn more in the article “Tips for using, putting out campfires” in this guide.

Too many dead, dying trees
Forest health is vital to forest ecology and too many trees and overgrowth have created unhealthy forests that are a wildfire hazard. Before the Comstock logging era from the 1860s to the 1890s, the forests in Tahoe contained larger trees with wider spacing between trees, explains Lisa Herron, public affairs specialist for Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Fires were common in the Basin and maintained the health of the forests. Logging companies clear-cut the entire Basin to support mining operations in Nevada and left the forests decimated. Over the years, the forests have become overgrown and a major wildfire threat.

“We are still dealing with the aftermath [of the logging era] and working on getting the lands in the basin to a place where they are healthy,” explains Thaler.

“Priorities are the wild and urban interface around homes and evacuation corridors, and a plan must be developed along these corridors to get the information to everyone” to know how to evacuate, says Thaler.

“I would say that we have too many dead or dying trees in our forest. The biggest impediment to fixing our forests faster and increasing the pace and scale of forest health work is the time it takes to permit things, and the permitting process is very outdated,” explains Amy Berry, executive director of the Tahoe Fund, a nonprofit agency that funds projects that restore and enhance the Tahoe Basin.

Berry adds that there is too much wood in the forest and nowhere to take the excess wood.

“The only solution is to chop the trees down and then create these burn piles,” explains Berry. There are currently 750,000 burn piles scattered throughout the Tahoe Basin.

Thaler explains that many of these burn piles need to be cured before they can be burned.

“Trees can take up to three years to cure,” says Thaler. Much of this depends on where the piles are and whether there is access to them.

“When we use mechanical thinning, we can move the material. Hand thinning in steeper, rockier areas can be more difficult to access,” adds Herron.

Benefits of fire
Fire naturally contributes to the well-being of forests by releasing nutrients into the soil, fostering species diversity and reducing the accumulation of flammable vegetation known as fuels. Prescribed burns are essential to maintaining forest health and reducing the risk of wildfires. Prescribed burns reduce hazardous fuels; protect homes and infrastructure; decrease the spread of pests, insects, diseases, and invasive species that threaten native flora and fauna;improve habitats for threatened and endangered species; and promote the growth of trees and plants, according to the Forest Service.

“In addition to thinning, we must put good fire back on the landscape. So prescribed fires are happening in the communities, and I think acceptance that those are a necessary part of living in an area with wildfire danger,” says Berry.

Tackling fire danger
The Tahoe Fund has also been helping by funding several new technologies that have come to market to combat wildfire risks.

Land Tender is a software that uses high-resolution imaging and artificial intelligence to help land managers address wildfire threats and plan forest health and restoration treatments. Berry says that forest health projects often take years to plan and execute but that time can be drastically cut by using Land Tender.

“Land Tender can create forest health plans in a matter of weeks instead of months or years. It illuminates what is happening on the forest floor,” explains Berry. Land Tender has made it possible to plan preventative projects like thinning forests, clearing fuels and conducting prescribed burns.

The Tahoe Fund is also helping to fund a pilot program with the Zamboni-looking BurnBot, a remote-operated machine that conducts self-contained prescribed burns in difficult-to-access areas. The BurnBot uses robotics, drones and state-of-the-art software and can ignite up to 2,000 acres a day.

Tahoe Fund and Vail Resorts also have contributed fund to support the new Northstar Community Services District Wood Energy Facility. The district is replacing gas-powered boilers with wood-powered boilers and will use wood from the forest to heat the Village at Northstar. The 6,000-square-foot facility will process tree materials and green waste and is expected to consume 3,800 bone-dry tons of woody biomass per year when built.

As well, Tahoe Fund is supporting the Nevada Division of Forestry’s efforts to reopen the Carson City biomass facility and working with private investors to get the Loyalton biomass facility restarted. Placer County is also looking to build a biomass facility at the Eastern Regional Landfill outside Truckee.

The Forest Service and several agencies are also working on the Lake Tahoe West restoration project. The project aims to reduce the high risk of wildfire in this area, which encompasses 60,000 acres from Emerald Bay to Carnelian Bay and has the highest tree density and mortalityin the Tahoe Basin. The restoration project includes forest thinning, biomass utilization, prescribed burns and habitat restoration.

What can you do?
Forest Service officials say one of the biggest impacts that homeowners can make is to participate in the Fire Adapted Communities Program. The program encourages homeowners to take steps such as home hardening and creating defensible space, as well as prevention, planning and education.

Volunteers in neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations are needed to participate in this program, says Michelle McLean Fire Adapted Communities program director for Tahoe Resource Conservation District.

“Neighborhood leaders are the core aspects of our programming,” says McLean, who explains that there are 70 fire-adaptive communities around the Tahoe Basin.

Find more details on the Fire Adapted Communities Program in this guide.

“We need money to solve this problem,” says Berry. “… Supporting local, state and federal initiatives that are going to provide more public funding to increase the pace and scale of restoring the forests is critical.

“We need millions,” Berry says.

Tahoe Fires*

  1. Dixie Fire, 2021 | Burned 963,309 acres | Caused by Powerlines
  2. North Complex, 2020 | 318,935 acres | Lighting
  3. Caldor Fire, 2021 | 221,835 acres | Bullet strike
  4. Tamarack Fire, 2021 | 68,637 acres | Lighting
  5. Cottonwood Fire, 1994 | 46,000 acres | Lighting
  6. Martis Fire, 2001 | 14,500 acres | Illegal campfire
  7. Waterfall Fire, 2004 | 9,000 acres | Abandoned campfire
  8. Acorn Fire, 1987 | 6,600 acres | Human Cause
  9. Angora Fire, 2007 | 3,100 acres | Illegal campfire
  10. Crystal Peak Fire, 1994 | 1,000 acres | Human (accidental)
  11. Butterfield Fire, 2022 | 5-10 acres | Arson

*Not a complete list of all regional fires. The list is an example of the causes of fires of note.

Smartest Forest Fund

Tahoe Fund will match any donation tahoefund.org


Read Tahoe Guide’s 4th Annual Wildfire Preparedness Guide