Photo of Lake Tahoe by Canva Creative Commons

Editors’ Note: Amanda Milici is the Fire Adapted Communities Coordinator with Tahoe Resource Conservation District (Tahoe RCD). Tahoe RCD’s mission is to promote the conservation, stewardship and knowledge of the Lake Tahoe Region’s natural resources by providing leadership and innovative environmental services to all stakeholders. Tahoe RCD is also a key partner in the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities, a collaborative education and outreach program designed to prepare Lake Tahoe residents for wildfire. Here Amanda shares a recent effort focused on engaging with the renter community in the Tahoe region to help prepare a wildfire preparedness guide specifically for them.

Dark clouds and dry lightning set the scene for our drive to the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. We passed an electronic orange road sign that read “RED FLAG WARNING IN EFFECT, EXTREME FIRE DANGER.” Anxiety crept up each time I saw a bright flash strike through the sky, heard the loud roar of thunder, and witnessed no rain.

However, with my coworker and co-author Anya Obrez at my side, my anxious thoughts quickly turned into hope, inspiration and excitement as I reminded myself why we were driving in the first place. On that stormy June evening, we were on our way to conduct one of two focus groups for a new resource: Prepare for Wildfire: A Guide for Lake Tahoe Long-Term Renters.

The idea for the guide was born out of an identified gap in our program, the Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities (Tahoe Network). Throughout its history, the Tahoe Network has encouraged basin-wide wildfire preparedness efforts by hosting educational events and workshops, empowering inspired community leaders and providing connections between residents, fire districts and local land management agencies.

Cover of a report entitled "Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide"

The cover of the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide

Historically, however, many of these efforts have related most to Lake Tahoe homeowners. Our publications and outreach focused heavily on defensible space and home hardening, and in January 2021, our program helped produce the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide, a guide to help homeowners address ember-vulnerable components of their homes.

Of course, defensible space and home hardening are incredibly important concepts that should be promoted heavily but when renting a property those efforts aren’t always possible. Although not intentional, our program and its resources weren’t specifically relatable to renters. If a renter wanted to find relevant information about evacuation or emergency alerts, they would have to sift through paragraphs and pages of topics that simply don’t apply to them. Additionally, renters wouldn’t be able to find preparedness information that only applies to them.

The Lake Tahoe Basin attracts renters from all over. Some grow up here and have familiarity with the landscape and its relationship with fire. Others move here from elsewhere—drawn to winter sports and summer recreation—and are new to living with wildfire on the West Coast. With renters comprising 59% of Lake Tahoe’s occupied housing units in 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau), we recognized the opportunity to create a wildfire preparedness resource relevant to all housing demographics. Thus, the renter’s guide was born.

As a Lake Tahoe renter myself, I assumed I had a solid understanding of what should and shouldn’t go into the guide. I worked with a few seasoned wildfire preparedness experts and thought my rental experience combined with mine and my partners’ preparedness knowledge would form the perfect content.

But to ensure the guide was as useful as it could be, we enlisted the feedback of local renters and held two focus groups on the North and South shores of Lake Tahoe. What I feared would be awkward 5-minute conversations were instead engaging, hour-long discussions about information that was missing from the guide and how the guide could be even more useful from a renter’s perspective. Some folks suggested ideas that I hadn’t considered adding, such as how to talk to landlords about defensible space responsibilities. Others highlighted information they were unaware of before reading the guide, such as obtaining renter’s insurance and signing up for local emergency alerts.

A group of people sit in a circle on the sand looking at papers with Lake Tahoe in the background

Lake Tahoe residents reviewing the renter’s guide at a South Shore Focus Group. Recruiting volunteers during the summer can be challenging. When participants were asked where they preferred to meet, “the beach” was the most popular suggestion. Photo credit: Anya Obrez, Tahoe Resource Conservation District

I was so happily humbled. The process of seeking feedback and input from local renters was invaluable. I learned that different minds bring different experiences, different perspectives and different needs. It felt as though instead of creating a resource for the community, we were creating a resource with the community.

It was a win-win. While we gained crucial feedback for our upcoming resource, the focus group participants learned more about wildfire and gained a sense of empowerment to prepare for it. Even though they were volunteering their time, every participant thanked us at the close of each session. In fact, a participant even reached out a few days later to let me know they were preparing for wildfire and packing their Go-Bag. It was clear the focus groups were of great value to the participants and to us.

Throughout the process of creating and evaluating the guide, I learned that community input isn’t just helpful—it’s imperative. I learned that people are empowered when they’re involved. And, I learned that every single person, from homeowner to visitor to renter, has a role to play in creating a shared sense of wildfire preparedness. There are actionable things everyone can do and our job is to ensure they know what those things are and feel capable of doing them. Anya and I drove home from the focus groups with huge smiles on our faces, blown away with the power of community involvement and the sense of agency it creates. We were elated to begin editing.

We expect the guide to be published and shared in early August. It will be available at tahoelivingwithfire.com. We are so grateful to our focus group participants for their time, input and engagement and to everyone who contributed to and reviewed the guide.

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