Tahoe In Depth: Drought Poses Wildfire Risk

The following is an excerpt from the Summer 2015 issue of Tahoe In Depth. Click here to learn more, read past issues, or subscribe today.

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A plume of smoke from the 2007 Washoe Fire on the West Shore of Tahoe was clearly visible from the South Shore.

Drought Poses Wildfire Threat

By Tom Lotshaw
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency

The severe drought gripping California and Nevada for three, going on four years has left Lake Tahoe with low water levels, extensive sand beaches, drier than usual forest conditions, and an elevated risk of wildfire.

A small wildfire in March was the year’s first at Lake Tahoe. It was caused by an illegal campfire in Desolation Wilderness, a popular backpacking area where campfires have been banned since 1990. Campfires are responsible for about 90 percent of the wildfires each year on National Forest System Land around the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“It caught two rather large logs on fire and threatened the surrounding forest, and normally people wouldn’t even be out there that time of year,” said John Washington, fuels division chief for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

People are going to have to be extra careful to prevent wildfires this year because of the exceptionally warm and dry conditions. Just how dry is it?

The California snowpack measured only 5 percent of the statewide average in April, when snowpack is normally at its greatest. In the Lake Tahoe Basin, snowpack was only 3 percent of average.

This past winter was the warmest on record in California, breaking a record set the previous winter. The year 2014 was also the warmest calendar year on record, and the third year of a severe drought that has seen the driest three consecutive years on record for statewide precipitation.

Low precipitation and exceptionally warm weather have left California and Nevada exceptionally dry. By mid- April, dry forest conditions in the Lake Tahoe Basin resembled conditions not normally seen until mid-summer or later.“Not only is this a California or Nevada problem, this problem extends up into Oregon, Idaho, Washington— pretty much all of the Western states are being affected by above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation,” said Alex Hoon, fire weather program manager for the National Weather Service in Reno.

“We’re looking at some of the driest conditions we’ve seen in modern times. People need to be aware that the whole Lake Tahoe Basin is going to be under the gun for wildfire this year,” Hoon said.

Even when the drought ends, the wildfire threat will remain for many Lake Tahoe communities in the wildland-urban interface where homes, businesses, and forests meet, so people need to continue to adapt to that reality, Hoon said …click here to read the rest of this article and more!

 

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