Angora fire lessons smolder a decade later
By many accounts, Sunday, June 24, 2007, started out like a regular summer Sunday. By the end, the day would be one etched in the collective memory of Lake Tahoe.
Flames erupted on the Angora Ridge southwest of the lake. The fire spread quickly, forcing hundreds from their homes. Evacuation centers sprang up and became temporary homes to 110 people by Sunday night.
The Angora Fire reinforced something firefighting officials already knew: hazardous fuels reduction works — and there needs to be more of it.
Though the fire burned 3,100 acres and destroyed 254 homes, in the areas where fuels reduction had taken place — including tree thinning, brush removal and prescribed burns — the fire burned in a drastically different way.
“In a lot of the areas that had been treated the fire burned on the surface at a level that the firefighters could actually take effective suppression action,” explained Forest Schafer, forest science and management coordinator for the California Tahoe Conservancy.
By contrast, the fire burned much more intensely in areas that hadn’t been treated. The flames traveled up into the tree canopy from “ladder fuels” — low hanging tree branches and flammable shrubs.
So how did the forests get to this point of needing human intervention?
Clear-cut logging in the late 1800s led to the regrowth of an unnaturally thick and even-aged stand in the Tahoe Basin. Coupled with years of fire suppression and hazardous fuels accumulation, the forests became vulnerable to intense wildfires without proper treatment.
The devastation of the Angora Fire made it clear that agencies in the multi-jurisdiction basin needed to increase the pace and scale of thinning and treating forested areas surrounding the communities of Lake Tahoe. And the way to do this was by joining forces.
In 2008 the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team was formed with 20 partner agencies around the Tahoe Basin. `
“We are able to pool resources, coordinate on grants and get more for our dollar when we do these larger-scale hazardous fuel projects,” explained Kit Bailey, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
Over the last 20 years, 69,500 acres of forest have been cleared of hazardous fuels in the basin — and more than 48,000 of those acres were cleared since the Angora Fire.
Today, 50 percent of the forest in the wildland urban interface has been treated to reduce hazardous fuels.
But treatment of forests isn’t the only factor that helps control wildfires.
“The Angora Fire showed just how important defensible space is,” explained Schafer. “The most effective actions that residents can take to protect their property are also the easiest and most cost-effective actions: raking needles, removing ladder fuels and thinning shrubs.”
Since the Angora Fire, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team has performed more than 27,500 defensible space inspections, a free service that’s offered — and encouraged — for all residents to take advantage of.
Further, in 2008 building codes were changed to improve the fire resistance of structures.
Public education efforts have also been ramped up in the form of community events, ad campaigns and outreach.
“It’s not just preparation; it’s prevention. Campfires remain the leading cause of wildfires in the Lake Tahoe Basin,” said Schafer. In fact, 90 percent of wildfires are human caused, including the Angora Fire, which was started by an abandoned campfire.
Though the scar left from the burn will take nearly a century to return to its former state, the land is beginning to heal thanks to the efforts of dozens of agencies around the lake.
To date, 1,100 acres have been reforested and 2,000 feet of stream channel have been restored. Just two weeks ago over 40 volunteers came to tend the area, removing brush from roughly 400 trees.
“Although the Angora Fire was emotionally and economically devastating to the Lake Tahoe community, 10 years later we have learned some valuable lessons that will help move us toward a more resilient and healthy ecosystem less vulnerable to destructive wildfires,” said Teresa McClung, acting forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.