Photo Credit: FAC Net members and partners met last month for an annual meeting and field exchange. Photo by Allison Jolley, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

The Lake Tahoe Basin (basin), the location of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network’s 2017 annual workshop, is the epitome of a multi-jurisdictional landscape. At just over 200,000 acres, it covers portions of two states, five counties and seven local fire protection districts (FPDs). Different laws, policies, funding sources and stakeholders with common interests, but often competing priorities, create a complex socio-political landscape.

Despite all of that diversity, the basin is tied together ecologically as one watershed. The human community is also connected through a common identity, and through a dependence on tourism.

As part of last month’s annual meeting, FAC Net had a field exchange in the basin that reflected on the formative role that social, ecological and political contexts play in the development of local FAC strategies. With the backdrop of Lake Tahoe’s stunning vistas, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (TFFT) and their local partners shared some of their FAC strategies with the network.

Tahoe’s Fire History and the Formation of TFFT

Due to logging, a decline in cultural burning and wildfire suppression, the basin is an example of a transition from a Jeffrey pine-dominant forest to an overly dense white fir forest. Wildfires have destroyed almost 300 homes in the basin in the last ten years. To address this risk and prevent future losses, in 2007, TFFT formed as a partnership of 20 agencies that coordinate and leverage fire adaptation work. Their progress was confirmed just last summer, when the 2016 Emerald Fire was successfully suppressed largely due to the fuel reduction projects and defensible space coordination that occurred before the fire.

Evacuation Planning for Congested, Narrow Roadways

Screenshot of Tahoe's Emergency Preparedness Guide

Click here to learn more about North Tahoe and Meeks Bay Fire Protection District’s Emergency Preparedness Guide

A large part of addressing the challenges of wildfire preparedness in the basin involves evacuation planning. During the exchange, we learned about the basin’s current evacuation challenges, and how local FPDs are combining community outreach and planning to increase the safety of residents and visitors during wildfires. Evacuation during a wildfire presents a significant challenge because the basin has limited, primarily two-laned, evacuation routes. One way that North Tahoe and Meeks Bay FPDs have addressed that challenge is through the creation of an “Emergency Preparedness and Evacuation Guide” that they have distributed to residents, resorts and HOAs throughout the basin.  Another approach to this challenge has been developing and promoting shelter-in-place strategies.

We also learned that new developments are required to have much more comprehensive evacuation and shelter-in-place plans prior to permitting. The combined use of planning requirements and corresponding building codes are ensuring that new infrastructure, and its residents, can better withstand fire.

Tahoe’s Spin on Collaborative Restoration

We then looked toward the future of the basin by learning about the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership, a collaborative which is taking a landscape-scale approach to integrating scientists, managers and community stakeholders into project design.

This partnership is a collaboration between the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, California State Parks, USFS Pacific Southwest Research Station, the California Tahoe Conservancy, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, local scientists and community members. The goal of the collaborative is to produce an implementation-ready, landscape-scale project that receives meaningful community feedback during the project design phase and is therefore easily expedited due to the collaborative design process. The project will be a suite of small projects that are all folded into one combined state and federal environmental document, but they will each advance landscape restoration (including hazardous fuels reduction). They are aiming to complete planning and begin implementation in 2020.

Map of the Lake Tahoe West cross boundary fire adaptation project boundary

Credit: Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership

Building the Network through … Games!

The afternoon switched gears to focus on building stronger partnerships within the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. Local crews from North Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Douglas FPDs led network members through a series of field-based leadership exercises designed to highlight the importance of clear communication, and to build effective teamwork. Click here for a synopsis of the various team-building activities.

Two Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network members participating in a team-building activity.

FAC Net members participated in several team-building activities during the field exchange. Credit: Liz Davy, The Nature Conservancy

More Local Context: Successful Burns, Homeowner Mitigation and Outreach to Part-Time Residents

More context about the FPDs was interspersed among the activities as well. There are three local fire crews in the basin hosted by FPDs. These specialized crews increase local capacity for fuel reduction and provide additional, immediately needed suppression resources. They also enable prescribed fire to be effectively utilized on state, local and private lands.

We learned that Incline Village’s FPD conducted its first understory burn in 1993. Since then, a “halo” of shaded fuel breaks and fuel reduction projects have been completed around the community. Norb Szczurek, retired from North Lake Tahoe FPD, explained that the Third Creek Fuel Reduction project was one of the first mechanical fuel reduction projects in Incline Village. He provided lessons for how to effectively engage communities in fuel reduction projects within highly visible recreation areas.

Tahoe Douglas FPD’s focus, on the other hand, has been primarily on homeowner wildfire mitigation. The facilitator of that session, John Pickett, explained that in general, the basin’s population requires different types of incentives to create defensible space. A portion of the community created defensive space almost instantly after the FPD offered affordable programs. Other members of the community appear most responsive to outreach from neighbors, which is why the TFFT is now investing in a program where local champions (or “spark plugs”) perform neighbor-to-neighbor outreach. Then, there are other members of the community that require more one-on-one assistance due to socioeconomic reasons. Interestingly, John also explained that there is a portion of the community that doesn’t appear to be motivated by affordable programs, their neighbors or even fines. However, many of those harder to reach community members live primarily elsewhere and have a second home in the basin. Mandatory court appearances have, therefore, been quite effective in reaching some of the less responsive residents.

Overall, about 70 percent of the basin’s residents are part-time residents, making community outreach a nuanced process. Nicole Shaw with the Tahoe Resource Conservation District provided background on the basin’s community outreach programs and facilitated a brainstorming activity called “creative consult” to develop and refine local outreach approaches. TFFT and their many partners are looking forward to implementing some new techniques this spring, many of which were suggestions that network participants mentioned during the brainstorming activity.

Group of people brainstorming about fire adapted communities at a picnic table

Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network members and Tahoe Resource Conservation District’s Nicole Shaw brainstorming outreach ideas. Credit: Allison Jolley, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Context Matters. So do Outside Ideas.

The annual workshop’s field exchange provided a palpable reminder of how much context influences FAC strategies. However, hearing so many great ideas, prompts and feedback from network members during the exchange reminded us how helpful a fresh set of eyes can be. While local FAC work requires great familiarity (and integration) of local history and context, it is also important to remember that an outside perspective can recognize new opportunities and solutions.

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