On August 30, 2021, disaster for Lake Tahoe’s south shore community seemed inevitable. The day before, fire fighters lost their tenuous hold on the raging Caldor Fire and it raced up the American River canyon toward Lake Tahoe, fueled by extreme winds and dry conditions, incinerating cabins and homes in its path. Now the fire reached the final ridgeline and began to march down the mountain toward the south shore and the Christmas Valley neighborhood directly below. Fire experts worried about a potential urban conflagration. Evacuated from my neighborhood in South Lake Tahoe, I watched from afar in horror and dread, imagining the worst for my community, my friends and neighbors, my home.
And then, like a miracle, the fire jumped over Christmas Valley entirely. It spotted across the valley and stayed south of town, where it continued on up the high rugged ridge toward Nevada. The south shore – permanent home to around 30,000 people and visited each year by tens of thousands more – was somehow spared. The winds died down and fire fighters rapidly contained that section of the fire. Not a single home in the south shore community was lost.
How did this town poised on the brink of catastrophe escape unscathed? A great deal of credit goes, of course, to the skilled fire fighters who used every available tactic and technology to steer the fire away from neighborhoods, track down every spot fire, and ring the fire with hand crews, water hoses, and dozer lines. Homeowners had created defensible space around their homes, which gave fire fighters space to work. The Forest Service identified the Caldor as the highest priority fire in the nation and sent every resource they could. And there was undoubtedly an element of luck: the winds pushed the fire to the east instead of north toward town, and then the winds died down.
But another critical factor was also at play: over a decade of investment in forest thinning projects in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Fire officials overseeing the firefighting effort credited these forest thinning projects as a key element that helped save Christmas Valley and nearby neighborhoods. When the fire hit the treated areas, the height of the flames dropped from 150 feet to as low as 15 feet, increasing the odds that fire fighters could gain control, put out the flames, and prevent the fire from spreading into town.
The National Forest Foundation plays many roles as a partner in these forest management efforts, from coordinating and facilitating the collaborative Lake Tahoe West Restoration Project to implementing forest health projects like the Big Jack East Project and the West Shore Ward Creek Project. We are also working with the Forest Service and communities on forest thinning efforts in other parts of the Sierra and Southern California. Doing so is part of our mission is to bring people together to restore and enhance our National Forests and Grasslands, which we believe are an American treasure.
Lake Tahoe is a special place, and Congress has invested heavily in forest thinning and restoration efforts through the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act and other funding sources. These efforts paid off in the Caldor Fire. But other communities were less fortunate. At the National Forest Foundation, our hearts are with the many families who lost their homes to the Caldor Fire and other wildfires in recent years.
Forest thinning projects are effective in protecting communities, and more important than ever. New funding by the State of California is making it possible for land owners, managers, and their partners to complete more of this work. The National Forest Foundation is proud to be a partner in efforts all across the state, from the San Bernadino National Forest in the south, to the Inyo National Forest in the east, to the Tahoe National Forest in the North. Click here to donate to the Sierra Nevada Forest Fund.
Sarah Di Vittorio is a Northern California Program Manager with the National Forest Foundation, based in South Lake Tahoe, California.