Editor’s note: In emergency situations, having a network of neighbors and nearby community members makes a huge difference. While building those relationships isn’t always easy, finding a common goal to unite around can provide incredible results. In this blog, FAC Net member Amanda Milici shares how communities around Lake Tahoe came together in response to the Caldor Fire and through Firewise USA® organizing.
On the night of last year’s Halloween, I received a frantic text from my neighbor that her cat, Pete, was dismissed early from the vet (this will relate to wildfire at some point, I promise). She and her family were on vacation in Hawai’i and weren’t expecting Pete to be home for another week. She asked if I’d be willing to administer his medication for the remainder of their trip, so dressed in our Halloween costumes (Smeagol and Galadriel from Lord of the Rings), my partner and I headed over and gave Pete a cocktail of cat drugs.
A few months later, Lake Tahoe experienced its snowiest December on record. With the snowplow two days behind schedule, my partner and I prepared to spend most of our free time shoveling. However, as they witnessed the berm slowly grow feet taller than the top of my head, my neighbor and her husband – Pete the cat’s mom and dad – cheerfully delivered their snowblower and saved us hours of snow removal labor. I was grateful for this neighborly relationship, and in the months that followed, we exchanged many favors: snow-blowing, cat-sitting, driveway-sharing, and so on.
As a millennial, I feel like I’m one of the few people my age who has a relationship with their neighbors. According to the Pew Research Center, only about half of Americans claim to know their neighbors, and far less (26 percent) know most of their neighbors. Similarly, data from the General Social Survey shows that a third of Americans say they’ve never interacted with their neighbors at all. This is a sharp decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans spent time with their neighbors regularly – at least twice per week.
However, my relationship with Pete’s parents wasn’t born naturally over time with neighbor-to-neighbor chats or small talk. It was born out of necessity during the Caldor Fire. As we were preparing to evacuate, my neighbors and I talked in-depth for the first time and exchanged phone numbers so we could keep each other updated and help one another as needed.
As the Fire Adapted Communities Coordinator for Tahoe Resource Conservation District, I talk with many folks who share similar stories. We run a program called the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities, in which volunteers – known as Neighborhood Leaders – work closely with us and their fire protection districts to spearhead wildfire preparedness efforts in their neighborhoods. Their stories reveal a larger truth about fire adapted communities: preparing for wildfire brings neighbors together. It builds neighborhood networks, and connected communities benefit in ways beyond increased preparedness.
A notable example comes from a neighborhood called Agate Bay, a Firewise USA recognized site on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. John McQuitty, the Neighborhood Leader for Agate Bay, is the first to admit that his neighborhood is a bit “divided.” With 450 homes comprising the shoreline community, half belong to a private pier club (giving them exclusive access to the pool and lake) and half do not. As you can imagine, the complex history of this division – along with its implications – has over time created spoken and unspoken tension between neighbors. In recent years, however, the neighborhood tension has lightened as residents were brought together under the shared responsibility of preparing for wildfire.
“Since the Firewise process started, there has been much better understanding,” said McQuitty. “We created a committee with an even mix of members and nonmembers and both part-time and full-time residents. They are now friends. They know each other, and they even have parties together now.”
Despite their differences, the group worked together with North Tahoe Fire Protection District and cultivated camaraderie, born out of necessary teamwork and a shared sense of success when the neighborhood received recognition. Regardless of boundaries defined by pool and lake access, boundaries defined by wildfire in the neighborhood were nonexistent.
On the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, others highlight similar themes. Neighborhood Leaders Leona Allen and Bridget Rielley of the North Upper Truckee neighborhood witnessed their neighborhood feel more connected than ever.
“Due to Firewise USA® organizing and coming together to be safer from wildfire, neighbors have met people that have been here for years that they never knew before,” said Rielley.
Similarly, they’ve noticed that because of these newly made connections, neighbors have more readily helped each other – with defensible space, with evacuation, and even with non-wildfire related needs. “As someone who had to be on the fire line, I didn’t have to worry about my neighbors getting out safely,” said Leona Allen, who works part-time with the USDA Forest Service. “They had each other’s backs.”
Down the highway, in Montgomery Estates, neighbors reflect that due to yearly Firewise USA® requirements, they have become accustomed to helping one another with teamwork projects during defensible space community workdays. “After years of doing this, we know who needs help. I keep a running list of neighbors that need extra hands,” said Neighborhood Leader Jesse Garner.
The Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities is a partnership between Tahoe Resource Conservation District, all seven of Lake Tahoe’s fire protection districts, land management agencies, and local community members. The program currently supports 60 Neighborhood Leaders in 43 engaged Lake Tahoe communities (15 of which are recognized by Firewise USA®) to empower grassroots wildfire preparedness. The program aims to create neighborhoods that are self-sufficient and sustainably adapted to living with wildfire.
Neighborhood Leaders are the cornerstone of the Tahoe Network, and they truly catalyze change in their communities. They have a knack for bringing people together, organizing, and getting folks on board.
In fact, some Neighborhood Leaders have put their neighborhood organization to other uses. Donarae Reynolds and Patti Wheeler of the Golden Bear neighborhood – another Firewise USA® recognized site – initially got the neighborhood together after a house fire in 2018 to coordinate an evacuation drill with Lake Valley Fire Protection District. They have since organized neighborhood easter egg hunts, COVID-safe Halloween trick or treating, Fourth of July parties, and a neighborhood-wide yard sale with 22 participating homes.
Similarly, John Gomez,Nick Hendricks, and Monique Migdol of Upper Montgomery Estates used their neighborhood organizational skills to host a neighborhood block party and raised $8,300 for Lake Valley Fire Protection District following the Caldor Fire. Among many other neighbors, they later built a float and entered into the City of South Lake Tahoe’s Fourth Of July parade with the theme “Upper Montgomery Estates Strong.” They won second place.
In a time where political polarization is increasing faster than ever and where communities are still recovering from two years of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, neighbors play an important role in our sense of belonging. We may not always get along with our neighbors, and we may often disagree with them, but when it comes to wildfire, we need them. Their defensible space is our defensible space, and they can be huge support systems during evacuation.
Moreover, in some communities, preparing for wildfire can be unifying. Neighbors may disagree about how much climate change plays a role in wildfire intensity; they may disagree about how federal and state forests are managed; and they may disagree about local politics as they relate to wildfire response and preparedness initiatives. But they mostly agree that preparing for wildfire is important. And they mostly agree that it’s better when done together. Every community is different, but many neighbors in Tahoe seem to find joy in meeting each other for the common goal of living with fire. As said by John McQuitty of Agate Bay, “we may never solve our differences, but at least we talk.”
Witnessing neighborhoods coalesce and grow resilience gives me hope. I’m inspired to see the many other benefits that neighborhood networks provide beyond increased wildfire preparedness, and I find hope in any common ground neighbors have with each other. I’m grateful for the relationship I have with my neighbors. I’ve enjoyed watching their daughters grow up, and of course, I’ve enjoyed my nights spent with Pete the cat. And for that, I have the Caldor Fire to thank.
Amanda Milici is the Fire Adapted Communities Coordinator for Tahoe Resource Conservation District (Tahoe RCD). Through this role, Amanda spearheads the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities which is a partnership between Tahoe RCD, local fire protection districts, and community members throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin with the goal of preparing people and property for wildfire.