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Why Lake Tahoe is vulnerable to wildfires

As the Caldor fire continues to spread, authorities nervously view the Lake Tahoe basin as an area of ​​potential devastation.

The forest there, like many others in the western United States, has undergone a history of colonization, clearcutting, and aggressive fire suppression that upset the natural balance of wildfires. Plus, it’s populated, with tens of thousands of people living there year-round and around 15 million visitors each year, according to the local visitors bureau.

Some officials fear the factors will align to create a disaster that surpasses the 2007 Angora fire.

Thousands of years ago, low-intensity fires regularly burned the basin, wiping out dense young vegetation. The Washoe people are believed to have started some of these fires for land management purposes; others were triggered by lightning but were not extinguished right away, according to a US Forest Service report on the area’s fire history.

Europeans colonized the area in the mid-1800s and began cutting down trees to supply nearby towns and the mines of Comstock Lode with timber. Researchers estimate that more than 60% of the basin had been stripped by the turn of the century. The trees grew back to about the same height, their relatively young age and lack of diversity making them more vulnerable to destructive fires.

Around the same time, the rise of steam logging equipment, sawmills, and railroads increased the risk of fire. Newspaper articles in the 1880s spoke of entire towns destroyed. Tahoe City, which then had about 50 houses, two hotels and a few stores, burned down in 1894, according to Los Angeles Times records. Another fire in 1898 burned from the Rubicon region in the mountains to the shore of the lake, destroying “a great deal of precious wood,” according to records.

To stem the losses, the federal government adopted a policy in the early 1900s to put out forest fires on public lands as quickly as possible. By 1926, the US Forest Service had a directive in place to suppress all fires on 10 acres or less, an approach taken by other agencies.

During this time, people continued to move in droves in the Lake Tahoe basin. After World War II, tens of thousands of houses were built among the trees, and the neighborhoods are now filled with Alpine-style houses with wooden roofs and wooden decks, their courtyards covered with pine needles. .

Although well-intentioned, aggressive fire suppression practices have served to further block the natural cycle of low-intensity fires. They were, to some extent, successful: As recently as 2004, no fire in the area had reached more than 2,000 acres since 1908, according to a report from the US Forest Service.

Then, in 2007, the Angora fire, started by an abandoned campfire, burned more than 3,100 acres, destroying 254 homes and 75 other structures in six days. Authorities blamed high winds and low humidity for the speed with which the blaze swept through the area.

Similar conditions were in place on Monday, as the Caldor fire approached the Lake Tahoe basin, having already burned 177,260 acres and destroyed more than 470 homes.