The fire-threatening communities in Caldor and the breathtakingly scenic landscapes around Lake Tahoe – a destination Mark Twain once described as “the most beautiful sight on earth” – is a dramatic, unfolding disaster.
But the conditions that led to the evacuation of more than 50,000 people around the south and west shores of the famous Alpine lake – where embers rains on rural communities and soot chokes the normally pristine mountain air – are this week, this month, or. not created this year. They are the culmination of more than 150 years of choices people unknowingly made to set the stage for today’s disaster, experts say.
“We are in an emergency crisis across the Sierra,” said Susie Kocher, forestry and natural resources advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension in South Lake Tahoe.
Kocher, her husband, dog and cat evacuated their home in nearby Meyers on Monday to stay with relatives in nearby Sacramento. Before moving to the Tahoe area 15 years ago, she lived in Greenville, a small town in Plumas County. Most of Greenville burned down last month when the Dixie Fire raged through the forests of the northern Sierra Nevada.
“I watched the Dixie Fire and thought about how this town could burn down, too,” said Kocher, a registered professional ranger. “It’s pretty obvious that these fires are beyond our control. If you’re anywhere in the direction the wind is blowing, you should pack. “
The problem around Tahoe, as with much of the Sierra Mountains, dates back to the 1850s, according to Kocher and other fire experts.
For centuries, fires around Lake Tahoe have burned an average of every 10 to 15 years, said Brandon Collins, researcher with the US Forest Service and associate professor of fire science at UC Berkeley.
Set by lightning strikes or by the local Washoe people, these fires removed dead wood, accumulated needles, and other fire hazards. When fires were burning, they usually stayed near the ground and burned slowly. But everything began to change in 1859 when a huge silver deposit was discovered 15 miles east of Lake Tahoe in Virginia City, Nevada.
Miners working on Comstock Lode, which became the richest silver mine in the United States, cleared large swaths of Tahoe’s forests to support the vast underground network of tunnels. They removed large Jeffrey pines and other trees that had been separated from one another by years of fires.
“There were big trees, lots of open space,” said Collins. “Now it’s a kind of wall-to-wall tree.”
What grew up were a dense number of silver firs and other trees. Not only did the fir trees have thinner bark, which made them more prone to fire than the older pines, but also lower branches that made it easier for the fire to spread.
John Muir, the conservation pioneer who founded the Sierra Club and helped save the Yosemite Valley, wrote a letter to the San Francisco Bulletin in 1878, sounding the alarm.
“In summer the woods resound with the unusual noise of loggers and chippers and screeching mills,” wrote Muir.
Muir tried to convince Congress to establish Lake Tahoe as a national park, as he had done with Yosemite. But in large part because of Tahoe’s damaged landscape and opposition from local landowners, lawmakers turned it down. In 1912, 1913, and 1918, senators unsuccessfully introduced bills.
A private development with casinos, resorts and vacation homes sprang up in the 1920s. After World War II, it expanded, bringing in Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, the mob, speedboats, glitz and glamor. In narrow alleys under forests that once regularly burned, residential quarters made of wooden houses with sloping roofs emerged. To protect these developments, the fire services began to put out fires.
With no fire to thin them out, the woods grew thicker. In some places where there were 20 to 40 trees per acre in 1850, there are ten times as many today, Collins said.
Much of Tahoe’s forests have remained without fire for 100 years. So when fires start they burn much hotter and more violent. And Tahoe officials have done more of a fire reduction work than many other parts of the Sierra Nevada due to the popularity of the area, he noted.
In 1997, former President Bill Clinton and Al Gore held a summit on Lake Tahoe as part of a growing effort to protect the lake’s clear waters from pollution. New federal, state and municipal protection plans have been drawn up. Since then, 65,000 acres around the 200,000 acre Tahoe Basin, most of which are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, have been thinned or treated with mandatory burns, according to the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, a partnership of government agencies.
This work went well, said Kocher. However, it has to be expanded dramatically, especially since climate change continues to dry out the forests with higher temperatures.
“We need to think about making peace with fire, not just waging war,” she said. “We’re good at it, but we’re not winning.”
Collins agreed. He said forest thinning efforts across the sierra should be increased five to ten fold in the coming years. Such projects can be challenging, he noted, with controversy over smoke from mandatory burns, a cost of around $ 2,000 per acre with millions of acres to treat, and a lack of places to move the wood so it is often hacked on the spot.
“Much of the early work was done right around houses and streets for good reason,” said Collins. “But we need the work on a much larger scale.”
Kocher, who helped her neighbors prepare for the fire, found fires in some cases burn as hot, like the Angora fire near Meyers in 2007, that Jeffrey pines and other native trees were replanted must be to prevent the area from being overrun with bushes later. Working with fire before it gets out of hand is the only way to end 170 years of history and bring forests to a more natural state, she said.
“The money flows when there is a disaster,” said Kocher. “But it is often not enough for prevention.”