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Bill Seline, Retired Fire Chief for Truckee Fire Protection District standing outside his home. He’s been a resident of Truckee for 30 years. “We’ve developed the perfect storm. We’ve created this unnatural problem then elevated the risk,” said Seline. “My entire career I’ve wondered, what can we do? It’s a big problem and there’s not a silver bullet. It costs a lot of money to reduce fuels.”

California’s largest wildfire of 2022, the Mosquito Fire, had burned more than 76,000 acres near Foresthill in the foothills of Placer and El Dorado counties.

The blaze, 90% contained as of Friday morning, raged through bone-dry forests and forced thousands of people to flee their communities, some within just a few short hours. Thousands of homes were threatened, a dense blanket of smoke settled over the Truckee-Tahoe region for several days, creating outdoor air quality too hazardous to breathe.

“It is some of the thickest smoke I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Seline, a resident of Truckee for 30 years.

“I think when there’s smoke it definitely brings fire danger front of mind. As soon as there is smoke people think, ‘Oh yeah, this is a real threat to our community.’”

Seline knows fire. For the past 25 years, he was part of the team at Truckee Fire Protection District, and he spent the last six years as Fire Chief. He retired from the post in June but remains passionate about preserving the quality of life he moved to the Sierra for, a place rich with stunning landscapes, epic mountain bike trails and world-class ski slopes.

This region of the state, situated along the Interstate-80 corridor on the Sierra Crest, known for the ill-fated Donner Party and now an outdoor adventure destination, is facing a frightening reality like much of California.

“We’ve moved into an area where wildfire is a natural part of the landscape,” said Seline.

Before the gold rush, lightning fires in the Sierra during summer months were a normal pattern of the season and Indigenous cultures had long mastered the art of using fire as a land management tool. Later, clear-cutting in the region provided timber to fuel the Comstock Mines. Settlements and populations grew and for the next 150 years, wildfire suppression followed creating a legacy of monoculture forests choked with dry fuels ready to burn.

Today, a changing climate is creating unpredictable winter storms that leave behind a wake of downed trees, and dryer, hotter summers that stress remaining trees, making them more vulnerable to pests and disease. Meanwhile, California has the largest population in the U.S. and a growing number of people are heading to the mountains for recreation.

“We’ve developed the perfect storm. We’ve created this unnatural problem then elevated the risk,” said Seline. “My entire career I’ve wondered, what can we do? It’s a big problem and there’s not a silver bullet. It costs a lot of money to reduce fuels.”

Town and county officials along with state, federal and private land managers are scrambling to find a solution to a problem that is not going away. Nevada County Supervisor Hardy Bullock, who represents the Truckee area, voted to put Measure V on the November 8 ballot.

Measure V is designed to improve disaster readiness and reduce the threat of wildfires through the removal of flammable vegetation from roads, neighborhoods and critical infrastructure; help low-income seniors and people with disabilities with home hardening and enhance emergency communications and evacuation safety during an emergency.

“I think everyone is going to benefit if we do it right,” said Bullock of Measure V.

Measure V is expected to generate $12 million a year from a half-cent sales tax until it expires in 10 years.

Bullock worked with Town and County leaders to ensure that eastern Nevada County would get at least 25 percent of the annual revenue from the measure and a Memorandum of Understanding was put into place ensuring funding security.

“There are some legacy challenges getting resources to Eastern County. It has been very important to me that we recognize the needs of the Truckee community and deliver support and services. Measure V accomplishes this,” he said

A tourism economy choked by wildfire and smoke

Meanwhile, the rugged beauty of this place has not gone unnoticed. It’s an attraction for millions of visitors each year, compounding a “loved to death” syndrome – more cars and more people means more chains dragging on the highway, cigarettes thrown out windows and escaped campfires putting Eastern Nevada County in jeopardy. Approximately 95 percent of all wildfires in California are caused by human activity, according to CAL FIRE.

The Town of Truckee has a population of 16,000 people and an additional 3,000 people live in the unincorporated communities generally east of the I-80 and Highway 20 junction along the Interstate.

“We are a tourist-based economy for the most part. If you look overall at the reason the community has been able to grow it’s because tourism dollars exist,” said Robert Womack, Emergency Services Coordinator for the Town of Truckee.

Visitors bring an additional 25,000 to 30,000 “heads on pillows” in rental units and as many as 50,000 on a holiday weekend, says Womack. These are folks who come for the day or the weekend, numbers that are difficult to calculate.

Tourism is big business year-round in Eastern Nevada County and according to county officials, nearly every inch of Nevada County – upwards of 92 percent – is in a high or very high wildfire hazard severity zone.

“Let’s face it. If the community burns down, not only will people suffer, businesses are going to suffer long-term. Everyone has a chance to benefit from better protection, better safety and a better quality of life. We want to make sure no one gets hurt,” said Womack.

Winter sports are a big draw to the region and a vital sector of the economy. Depending on weather conditions, resorts like Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge see around 200,000 to 300,000 skier visits each season.

“We all worry about the impacts of visitation, particularly peak visitation. We want our visitors to recreate, but we also want them to be safe,” said Chris Parker, Vice President of Sugar Bowl Resort and Royal Gorge Cross Country on Donner Pass Road.

Sugar Bowl’s employees are all local residents, including 63 year-round and 600 seasonal workers in the winter months. Its location on the Western slope of Donner Summit puts the resort’s $300 million in private homes and 27 resort buildings in a vulnerable position for fire.

“We’re very concerned. For us, we feel our exposure is from the west. We spend a lot of money to our west on shaded fuel breaks,” said Parker. A fire coming from the South Yuba River Watershed or the North Fork of the American River, coming up the canyon and spotting is a real threat for Sugar Bowl Resort and the Donner Pass Road communities.

To the west of Sugar Bowl’s property is the Tahoe National Forest. Truckee Donner Land Trust owns an additional 3,000 acres.

“We’re spending a quarter million just this summer,” said Parker. Most of that money is out of pocket and some is coming from Measure T funding.

“We’ll be looking at grants for further funding. It’s not just protecting our business, it’s protecting our community,” Parker said. 

Much of Sugar Bowl is located in Placer County. The county line wiggles its way along Donner Pass Road, the old historic Highway 40, creating a neighborhood and commercial corridor accustomed to working across county lines. Sprinkled throughout the resort are mixed communities of second homes and year-round multi-million dollar residences in neighborhoods like Serene Lakes. The unincorporated area of Soda Springs and the general store are located in Nevada County.

“All of them will benefit from this,” said Parker. “Whether the benefits down the road are in Placer or Nevada County, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Fire doesn’t distinguish between political boundaries. There’s a benefit that accrues up to everyone up here. Any money spent –whether it’s in Sierra, Placer or Nevada County– if we can see fire fuel reduction in those areas we’re going to see a benefit to everyone,” said Parker.

The county line between Placer and Nevada counties weaves through the Tahoe Basin creating intricate relationships and collaborations between state, two counties, federal lands, 13 special districts, one land trust and other landowners. Looking at the region holistically and working collaboratively with all stakeholders will be key moving forward.

“This is not going to be any one person or one group that’s going to figure this out,” said Womack.

Recent surveys indicate that trail recreation is the most popular outdoor activity in Truckee’s snow-free months. This includes hiking, trail running, mountain biking, horseback riding and OHV activities.

So far, wildfire hasn’t had a big impact on local trails in the Truckee area like the Jones Fire that burned wooden flumes on the historic Independence Trail in Nevada City. But poor air quality from smoke has caused forest closures.

“These closures, of course, impact visitation and recreation,” said Allison Pedley, Executive Director of Truckee Trails Foundation. Even when there are no forest closures, smoke-filled days translate to fewer visitors and people using the trails. The group maintains approximately 180 miles of trails within the Truckee Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest and builds an average of five new miles of trail each year.

Besides smoke impacts, climate change is disrupting recreation in winter, too. Significant winter storm events can have a disastrous impact on trails. The December 2021 storm toppled a record number of trees across trails, all of which had to be removed by a trail crew.

“If wildfire destroyed our region, we believe that building back trails would be every bit as important as building back homes, stores and utilities because people live here for access to outdoor recreation and will need to know that the reasons they chose to live in the region will be restored. Otherwise, many people will not choose to re-build,” said Pedley. 

“An excellent start but we need more”

If approved by voters, the Measure V sales tax would complement an existing property tax called Measure T, which was approved by Truckee voters last fall. In its first summer of implementation, Measure T funds paid for defensible space assistance and curbside green waste disposal. But the need continues to outpace regional resources.

“I think it’s the scale of the problem that we’re failing to acknowledge,” County Supervisor Hardy Bullock said. “Measure T is an excellent start but we need more. We have an opportunity ahead of us for these two tax measures to work together to make a real difference.”

Compared to larger parcels in the southern reaches of Western Nevada County, Truckee’s neighborhoods are more densely packed with one-third to one-quarter acre lots, surrounded by 100-foot drought-stricken conifers. With the fear of fire front and center in everyone’s minds, there are hundreds of projects in the pipeline and not enough money to do the work.

“There will always be more work than we have funding for. Measure T is doing great things and there are a lot of great things in the works, but Measure T is pretty much spoken for. We’re going to have to find more funding,” said Robert Womack.

Learn more about Measure V: www.ReadyNevadaCounty.org/MeasureV

Laura Petersen is a freelance writer who has spent two decades chronicling the stories of people and places in Northern California. This is part of a series of articles on behalf of Nevada County examining emergency preparedness. Laura can be reached at laurapetersenmedia@gmail.com