History of Wildfire within the Lake Tahoe Basin
Information based on the Fire Adapted Communities publication from Living With Fire and the Lake Tahoe Basin Community Wildfire Protection Plan
Fire has been a natural part of Tahoe’s environment for thousands of years. These historic fires were frequent, of low intensity, and a major influence on the appearance of Tahoe’s forests. Beginning in the 1870s, Tahoe’s forests and the occurrence of fire started to change.
Much of the Lake Tahoe Basin is considered a “fire environment.” It contains flammable vegetation and a climate to support fire. Many of the plants growing here evolved in the presence of frequent fires. In fact, it is unnatural for fire to be absent for very long in many areas of the Lake Tahoe Basin. Prior to European- American settlement (1870s), most of the area burned on average of every 5 – 18 years. This frequency of fire maintained the health of the forests by reducing surface and ladder fuels, creating large, widely spaced trees with little understory vegetation.
Between 1875 to 1895, much of Tahoe’s forests were clear cut for large scale timber harvesting. Additionally, large amounts of livestock were introduced to the area and removed much of the herbaceous vegetation, and seedlings. By 1900 Tahoe’s forests were comprised of individual stands of seedlings, smaller trees, brush and the few remaining old growth forests.
During the 1920s few people visited the Lake Tahoe Basin due to World War II and the Great Depression. The federal government adopted a fire exclusion policy in 1924, starting an era of fire suppression. In the 1930s livestock grazing was reduced, allowing vegetation to regenerate, however there was a significant drought for 5 years which may have contributed to limited growth and higher fuel hazards due to tree and vegetation mortality. Since the 1930s, population has increased significantly, and the number of acres burned from natural wildfires continued to decrease.
Since the 1970s, public attitudes and management strategies emphasized the protection and preservation of natural resources. While the intention behind these decisions were good, the lack of fire or active forest management allowed forests to become extremely overgrown, including an increase in small understory trees that created a ladder of flammable vegetation from the ground to the overstory canopy.
Recent estimates indicate that forest stands have increased in density by 4 times when compared to the forest conditions prior to 1870. Current forest stands exhibit a 70% higher disease incidence and a 5% greater mortality rate due to competition for nutrients. Fire behavior has changed due to this increase in flammable vegetation and fire suppression efforts. The historic, natural, low intensity, frequent understory fires are nonexistent and due to the fuel load have evolved into large and intense mega fires. As a result, these fires can have catastrophic impacts on the ecosystem and take a longer rate of recovery for the area burned.
Fuels reduction projects are one of the many components to protecting the Lake Tahoe Basin from devastating wildfire. It is extremely important that those living and recreating within the Basin adapt to the changing conditions by becoming knowledgeable and preparing themselves and their neighborhoods for the presence of fire.
Are you Prepared?
When wildfire is approaching there isn’t much time to plan, react and gather all of your keepsakes and important belongings. The situation becomes chaotic, the solution is to plan ahead. Have your important documents available, create an evacuation plan, and work on protecting your family, property and homes by creating a Fire Adapted Community.
There are 5 components to being a fire adapted community. In combination these elements can prepare your homes, families, and landscape for wildfire. Begin to adapt by learning what these components are and start applying action! Visit the Tahoe Living With Fire website for tips on taking action.