Oversight committee focuses on evacuations and forest health

June 21st, 2024

PRESS RELEASE Tahoe Resource Conservation District

Taken from The Tahoe Daily Tribune and written by Katelyn Welsh

The TRPA and Marlette Lake Water System Legislative Oversight Committee met on Friday, June 7.
Photo Credit: Mike Peron / Tahoe Daily Tribune

STATELINE, Nev. – As the weather heats up, fire is on many’s minds, including the Legislative Committee that reviews and oversees the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The committee met at the agency’s headquarters in Stateline on Friday, June 7.

The committee, which also oversees the Marlette Lake Water System, received presentations on numerous forest, fire and evacuation related topics from TRPA staff and partners.

Both Nevada assembly and senate legislators comprise the committee that meets regularly on legislative gap years. Senator Skip Daly, the chair, Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, Vice Chair, Senator Robin L. Titus, Assemblyman Rich DeLong, and Assemblywoman Angie Taylor were present at Friday’s meeting. This was the fourth of six meetings this year.

“Tahoe is a unique place,” TRPA’s Kimberly Caringer opened up her presentation with. “Here you have this spectacular natural resource and for many reasons and history that I’ll not go into,” she said, “is not designated as a national park.”

Instead, she said, “we have communities that live here.” There is a living and working community here, living alongside the resource all working together to protect it, she added.

So because Lake Tahoe does not have that traditional regulatory protections that a national park affords from the beginning,” Caringer explained, “one major element of our regional plan is regulation.”

Setting the stage

Caringer presented the committee with a background overview, goals and originations of the agency’s Environmental Improvement Program, or EIP, since it would set the stage for the remainder of the afternoon’s topics.

Established since its first summit in 1997, the program’s projects focus on watersheds and water quality; forest health; sustainable recreation and transportation; and science, stewardship and accountability.

“We talk a lot about partnerships today,” Caringer said and explained that the committee could expect to hear from a lot of them at the meeting, “and that is because the EIP does not exist without them.”

One of these recent heavily partnered projects that she highlighted is the California Tahoe Conservancy’s acquisition of Motel 6. “It is a major regional benefit to the whole basin,” Caringer explained.

The TRPA provided $3.5 million for the acquisition using funds from permit mitigation fees. She said it’s a good example of where TRPA fees go.

Caringer also discussed a newly released Climate Resilience Dashboard that tracks partner progress toward building climate resilience across four long-term goals and associated indicators in the basin. The dashboard can be viewed at laketahoeinfo.org, along their EIP tracker with an interactive map of all EIP projects.

Overall, TRPA and its partners are making progress on their longterm thresholds, Caringer informed the committee, but they are faced with new threats, listing extreme weather, wildfire and microplastics. She announced to the group that a threshold evaluation comes out this year that will drive the direction of EIP priorities.

Forest health

Kat McIntyre, TRPA Environmental Improvement Department Manager, painted a picture of a healthy forest for the committee, describing it as a diverse mosaic with horizontal and vertical heterogeneity. Currently, the Sierra forests are denser than they were a century ago, she conveyed, citing a study that found them to be 6-7 times denser.

“Which is no surprise given historical logging practices and the exclusion of fire for over a century.”

She listed many practices used to bring health back to forests, including mastication, chipping, restoring native species after a burn, and prescribed burning. These practices restore health by limiting wildfire, reducing competition, improving habitat and limiting the spread of disease and insects, McIntyre explained.

She informed the committee that The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (TFFT) conducts these practices under the EIP and is a collaboration of multiple agencies and organizations in the basin. The Forest Action Plan guides their work and sets the goal of treating 22,000 acres of wildland urban interface by 2025.

The TRPA is a founding member of the TFFT and continues to act as a convener and works to collaborate with agencies. She explains they always ensure their practices are guided by science, working closely with the Tahoe Science Advisory Council and research stations.

She announced researchers just completed a study on the Caldor fire and efficacy of fire fuels treatment.

Committee members learned the Tahoe Basin is taking fire seriously and has 75 fire adapted communities in the Tahoe Basin, led by 96 neighborhood leaders. Firewise USA now recognizes 37 sites across the basin and will soon up the number to 41. These are communities receiving Firewise’s stamp of approval on meeting voluntary criteria each year to reduce wildfire risks. There were only 12 just two years ago in 2022.

All fire protection districts agencies are piloting a new tool this summer called Fire Aside that helps agencies streamline inspections and communicate with homeowners about inspections and actions homeowners can take on parcels.

McIntyre also told the committee the Tahoe Basin Community Wildfire Protection Plan is currently being updated. Its last update was in 2015. These plans help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and increase the resilience of communities. The update ensures the plan remains relevant to the changing conditions, landscape and community.

There have been numerous projects addressing water infrastructure and deficiencies. “Water infrastructure plays a critical role in fire suppression, especially when wildfire gets in a community,” McIntyre stated.

Examples include Incline Village General Improvement District’s fire hydrant replacement program and the Round Hill Fire Protection water infrastructure tank program, as well as the Cave Rock Fire Protection water infrastructure project.

She said partners are working on fuel breaks and prioritizing evacuations corridors, explaining most treatment around the basin are around communities and this will continue and include transportation infrastructure in the future.

In working on building capacity, she told the committee the Lake Tahoe Community College provides a forestry program, recently set up, which will build the workforce needed in the Tahoe basin.

They are bringing in new technology to the scene with the BurnBot pilot program, which is a remote controlled masticator that can double or triple the capabilities of hand crews, all while being quieter.

The Nevada Division of Forestry Deputy Administrator Ryan Shane added to the presentation. He reminded the committee the area has had a moist last two winters, which followed a historic drought. He said this could mean a delayed high fire danger in Tahoe, since plants don’t turn on growth right away after those long droughts. It’s something they are being cautiously optimistic about.

“We should not think about that as a break,” Shane said, “It’s really a time we’re afforded to engage in sharpening our pencils and increasing our pace and scale of work in the basin.”

He said the best defense is good forest health, announcing with the two water years, they’ve had the opportunity to prescribe burn more acreage than before. This resulted in getting through their backlog of burn piles.

Shane presented the Nevada Shared Stewardship Agreement, signed in 2019 by multiple agencies. Through the agreement, agencies prioritized landscapes where they can focus resources and have the biggest impact on wildfire and other threats to ecosystems and communities. He said Tahoe is a shared priority landscape, and “The Tahoe basin is colored in green, due to all the wonderful things we’ve heard here today.”

Forest Supervisor, Erick Walker, with the USDA Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, rounded off the forest health discussion emphasizing strong partnerships, since wildlife knows no boundaries.

He said the service works close with partners to set priorities for the TFFT and one of their top focuses are wildland urban interface areas. They then move out from those areas into the general forest. “It’s not an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when’, that fire shows up,” he said.

And when it showed up in the case of the Caldor Fire, he said they had the right treatments and home hardening in place and the water for an effective attack.

But, when those aren’t in place, it is unsafe to place firefighters. He said they need to have a healthy forests so when a fire shows up, they can have the highest probability of suppressing the fire.

In that effort, he said 1,000 acres have been treated so far this year on National Forest Lands and they intend to treat over 3,000 acres in the next few years.

Evacuation plans

For the first time, Tahoe will have a basin wide evacuation plan. Although each jurisdiction had it’s own plan, Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Fire Chief, Scott Lindgren, explained to the committee “There’s never been a one stop shop that the public can go to and look at a plan for the entire basin.”

TRPA Executive Director, Julie Regan still finds Caldor Fire embers in her backyard. “It’s a great reminder that this really matters.”

Although the TRPA does not have authority for evacuations, she explained to committee members that the agency plays the role as the convener and received an over $1 million federal award for improving preparedness and resilience to emergencies.

“The Caldor fire taught us some lessons with a whole bunch of things,” Chief Lindgren said, and one of those was evacuation. Tahoe has five counties, two states and multiple jurisdictions, with only a few ways in and out of the basin, he reminded the committee. When South Lake Tahoe was evacuated, he said, they learned there was not a lot of communication or coordination between the two states and counties effected.

This sparked collaboration between fire chiefs and sheriffs in the Tahoe basin about a year ago. They eventually brought county emergency managers to the discussion and started planning a basin wide evacuation plan.

The public can view the work as a comprehensive plan once collaborators release it. Community members can also find area specific information on it.

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Fire Chief, Ryan Sommers, explained to the group that each county that touches Tahoe also extends to a valley, with county-wide emergency plans. “We lasered out the Tahoe basin portion of those plans and put them into one document…” He went on to say after another final review, will release it to the public.

Although the over 50 page document is still in review, they have released a website with a map providing all the counties touching Tahoe. Each county is clickable and provides that county’s emergency details. The website to view the map is tahoealert.com.

Collaborators hope the final plan can be included in escrow packets for new property owners.

Organizers had one of the county emergency managers provide an example of what goes into county plans. That was Kelly Echeverria with Washoe County, who listed pre-identified shelter locations, emergency alert plans, and other communication technology, like the Perimeter Map platform, which can show residents where they are in relation to evacuation zones.

She also said they are pulling data to identify peak population numbers in Incline and Crystal Bay during peak times, like the fourth of July.

Committee members also heard Tahoe evacuation strategies from a state-wide perspective. David Fogerson, Chief of Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Advisor for the state, said ultimately, they don’t want to write a state evacuation. “We want to make sure that the locals are doing those plans,” he said, and they engage with local emergency managers and help them do what they need to do.

One example, during the Caldor Fire, was backfilling fire stations with Clark County staff, so Tahoe Douglas Fire, for example, could send their wildland trained firefighters without taking away from other fire department duties.

His division also coordinates with the Red Cross, National Gaurd and other agencies. They also coordinate with California for cross border aids.

Their job is to make sure local emergency managers have the tools they need, he said.

Projects for the Marlette Lake Water System

Staff from Nevada Public Works provided an overview of current projects, as well as potential future projects for the Marlette Lake Water System. This system provides the sole source of water for Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, Storey County and a quarter of the water for Carson City.

The design stage for the $24 million dollar Marlette Lake Dam rehabilitation project incorporating seismic and functional upgrades is near completion. Deputy Administrator for public works, Bryan Wacker, said they hope to start construction in 2025. In preparation, the agency will begin dropping water levels this winter, which will drain into Lake Tahoe. It won’t completely drain Marlette lake, but the draw down of around 22 feet for project is estimated to take six years to recharge.

Wacker said they’ve done extensive coordination related to the draw down with the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s fishery program there and other stakeholders. The drop will impact water delivery to Carson City.

The restoration work will also impact recreation access along North Canyon Road, but crews will place alternate trails and routes.

The project replaces low level outlets and valves, the emergency spillway, and increases the dam crest by over 2 feet. It will also provide downstream side seismic stability. The NDOW fishery and public works will also look into other maintenance they can do to take advantage of the low levels.

Public works is near completion of its design on the East Slope Transmission upgrade. The $9 million project upsizes three miles of the transmission main. Wacker said much of the pipeline is above ground, exposing it to hazards. The project will place it below ground. Another project there for $1.4 million will provide three additional attachments, which will increase delivery. Construction is anticipated to start fall 2025.

The $14 million Hobart Reservoir dam rehabilitation is still in its design phase as well, but public works anticipate the project completion by summer 2026.

A half million dollar project on Marlette’s pump generator is set to be completed summer 2025.

A future project in the pipeline are transmission main upgrades in two locations. In total, the projects will replace eight miles of 70 year old pipe. One segment is from the diversion dam near Hobart to the Sawmill sight. The other, from the Lakeview tank to Carson’s water treatment center.

Another future project comprises upgrades to the Marlette Water System office in the Lakeview area, providing drainage improvements, asphalt paving, LED light installation and a security system.

Public comment

Organizers provided two opportunities for public comment during the meeting.

Some felt the evacuation plans are deficient, provide a false sense of security, and rely on outdated information with more than one person pointing to the TRPA’s reliance on a 2012 analysis.

“We look to you, our representatives for leadership,” a full-time north Lake Tahoe resident said and added, “Lake Tahoe desperately needs the oversight committee to protect visitors, workers and residents.”

Mike Vollmer, a California registered professional forester and executive director for Tahoe Resource Conservation District supplied comment, noting there were many great presentations, but wanted to add context.

He explained there are more than one type of forestry management and they aren’t all the same. The kind often associated with increasing fire risk, he said, the science is talking about industrial forest management, not all forest management.

“What we’re doing in Lake Tahoe is not that.” He categorized Tahoe’s management as restoration forestry, having a second growth forest left behind from the Comstock era with an overstocked forest. He provided examples of forest treatments done in the basin but said forest treatment is not the only tool against wildfire, listing home hardening, fuels reduction and others.

The next Legislative Committee meeting takes place July 19 and focuses on water quality issues.