Wildfires and Smoke at Lake Tahoe (Considerations for Traveling in the Tahoe Backcountry during Summer)

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen

Living at Lake Tahoe and being surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains is like living in a dream. There’s plenty of powdery snow in the winter and sunshine in the summer. The finest outdoor recreation is literally outside your front door.

And, despite the massive influx of visitors that come to Lake Tahoe during the summers and winters and each holiday, the place still maintains its small town vibe.

I moved to Lake Tahoe in 2005 and, ever since, have been learning to live in this dream-like environment. I have to keep reminding myself, though, that with all dreams come the occasional nightmare.

And Tahoe, like anywhere else in the world, comes equipped with its own set of nightmares with which to contend. All of that beautiful snow we love to ski and snowboard over during the winter makes for crushing avalanches and hazardous driving conditions, while each summer brings the potential threat of wildfire.

In light of the California wildfires that ravaged the state during the summer of 2018 and the resultant smoke that settled in the Tahoe Basin for many weeks, I felt compelled to share what I’ve learned over the years about the reality of wildfires and living the mountain experience.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
July 12, 2018: View of Meyers and South Lake Tahoe from Angora Ridge a day before the Ferguson Fire (near Yosemite) was reported. The smoke on the left side of this photo is from a cement mixing plant located on HWY 50 so other than that and some clouds, the skies are clear. Note that the photos on this page (except for the featured image which was taken at Logan Shoals on July 31, 2018) were taken from various aspects of Angora Ridge. Also note that the burnt trees and associated terrain featured in these images are the result of the Angora Fire of 2007. © Jared Manninen

Throughout the summer, west coast wildfires become front-page news. Obviously the people who lose their loved ones and homes suffer the greatest losses, but wildfires impact everyone in the region.

The air quality is adversely affected (leading to indirect health hazards), and the psychological effects can be significant. It’s hard not to feel like the atmosphere itself – the very air we breathe – conspires to oppress us. The ceiling drops and the world becomes smaller.

With each acre that burns, there’s one less acre for people to roam freely (at least until the area recovers). And, due to evacuation measures implemented by the affected municipalities, people fleeing the carnage gravitate toward the main thoroughfares and transform into a consolidated mass of refugees.

Clearly, this is not the summer vacation anyone plans.

Wildfires on the west coast, however, are a fact of life. They are necessary for many species to continue surviving.

Although according to the National Park Service, “As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans,” the fact that they occur so easily and with such vigor is evidence that they are, indeed, a necessary facet of the regional ecosystem.

That said, humans are also a species trying to survive on the west coast, but the only thing wildfires provide for them is the destructive potential to wipe out neighborhoods and displace communities.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
July 20, 2018: View of South Lake Tahoe. Smoke from the Ferguson Fire has started to settle in the Lake Tahoe Basin. © Jared Manninen

My introduction to wildfires was during the devastating Angora Fire of 2007 that occurred in Meyers, CA, just west of South Lake Tahoe. Over 250 homes were destroyed in less than a week.

At the time, I was living within South Lake Tahoe’s city limits so I did not lose my home or have to evacuate like so many other people I know. Despite the fact that no one was officially charged for causing the fire, all speculation and theories point to an illegal campfire (at the now defunct Seneca Pond in Meyers) that was not properly extinguished.

Nearly every summer since the Angora Fire, wildfires have brought to Tahoe a few weeks of smoke filled air.

In the summer of 2018, smoke from the Ferguson Fire (near Yosemite) combined with other regional California wildfires such as the Carr Fire (near Redding, CA) and Mendocino Complex Fire (between Redding and Sacramento) filled the Lake Tahoe Basin.

The photos featured on this page illustrate how the smoke settled in South Lake Tahoe in 2018.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
July 22, 2018: Looking south toward Luther Pass and Echo Summit. The smoke is thicker in the Lake Tahoe Basin. © Jared Manninen

Causes of Wildfires and Some Tips on How to Reduce Your Risk of Starting Them

Errant lightning strikes from summer storms are definitely high on the list of ways in which wildfires can ignite. However, people leaving campfires unattended or improperly putting them out (Angora Fire), carelessly tossing aside cigarette butts, or trying to burn their trash instead of simply packing it out are mostly to blame.

That last item was illustrated in June of 2018 with the Voltaire Canyon Fire (just east of Lake Tahoe). Two people camping in Voltaire Canyon attempted to “clean up” their campsite by burning their toilet paper and shit.

Needless to say, the fire burned out of their control.

There are numerous other ways in which wildfires can start, and many of them can be random and unpredictable.

For example, the Carr Fire that destroyed over 1500 structures was caused by a vehicle’s trailer getting a flat tire. Sparks created by the friction between the rim of the flat tire and the asphalt shot into nearby dried vegetation.

Other examples include glass from a broken bottle magnifying the sun’s rays enough to set dry grasses alight, or a vehicle’s hot exhaust pipe making contact with dried vegetation and resulting in ignition.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
July 30, 2018: Looking northeast. South Lake Tahoe is hidden behind the boulder on the right side of the photo. © Jared Manninen

Additional Notes about Wildfires:

Fire can travel along a tree’s root system by smoldering underground for months, and then re-igniting at a later time.

If you think a big snowpack will make everything better for the following summer, think again. The excess snow does help to saturate the land, but it also enables grasses and opportunistic species to thrive that wouldn’t necessarily grow if the soil was drier (i.e. from a normal or lower snowpack level). These species are then quick to dry out when the moisture dissipates and ultimately create an even greater fire hazard in the form of abundant ground fuel.

Since there are so many different ways people can accidentally start wildfires, it’s up to each individual who travels in the backcountry (and many frontcountry and sidecountry locations, as well) to be mindful of their surroundings at all times and to minimize their impact by embracing Leave No Trace principles.

Scenarios to Consider with Regard to Minimizing Your Impact in the Backcountry and Fire Risk

Don’t Build Campfires in the Backcountry

One of the biggest steps toward minimizing your impact in the backcountry, as well as dramatically decreasing your risk of starting a wildfire is to stop having campfires. Let me repeat – if you truly love and care for wildlands stop building campfires.

To many this is blasphemous, I know, but artificially introducing fire into the backcountry is as risky and insane an act as any. Unless you’re standing at death’s door (i.e. you’re going to freeze to death or the wolves are closing in on you), there are no legitimate reasons to have a campfire in the backcountry.

Resist all peer pressure.

Resist all of your learned habits that camping = campfires.

This is outdated thinking and not commensurate with the world we currently live in.

Don’t build one. Don’t do it. Period.

But what about all of those beautiful moody and nostalgia-inducing photos I see on Instagram of people sitting by their campfire on a granite ledge, next to an alpine lake, or at the beach?

I agree that those photos look beautiful. But when you stop to think about it for half a second, you’ll realize that the majority of those fires captured in frame were built from scratch (i.e. illegal or at least unethical campfires) and the photographer will ultimately leave in their wake scorched earth.

Have you ever tried to completely erase the evidence of a fire? Impossible.

So what you leave behind is a blight for everyone to see.

And you’re not doing anyone a favor by leaving that brand new fire ring intact. All you’re going to succeed at is increasing the odds of burning to ash the area you claim to love.

By introducing the idea (i.e. through social media) of building campfires in remote terrain you normalize the behavior so that people no longer view building a campfire as a risky endeavor (which it is, always!). They are then more likely to copy the act, thereby increasing the overall risk for starting a wildfire.

What’s the alternative to building a campfire, then? Wear warmer clothes and enjoy being a part of nature and not apart from nature.

Campfires attract moths but repel just about every other critter out there.

Campfires diminish the view of the stars overhead.

Campfires encourage you to stay awake far longer than you would if you were camping without one. Then, you sleep in late and miss the following morning’s sunrise.

Going to sleep with the sun and waking up with it is one of the primary reasons I love to backpack because it evokes a sense of connection with the natural rhythm of the day.

Don’t Smoke in the Backcountry

You’d be surprised at how many long-distance thru-hikers (i.e. Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail) are also smokers. I’ve never understood it but … whatever.

The bottom line is that if you do smoke in the backcountry, stop moving while you’re actually smoking. Hang out and enjoy the scenery for that short while, then field strip the cigarette butt and dispose of the filter properly (i.e. pack it out).

The problem with walking and smoking is that you run the risk of depositing embers along the way.

Don’t Burn Your Trash in the Backcountry

Hobos from the 1940s called and they want their beliefs back. If you have at least a sixth grade education, you shouldn’t even be humoring the thought of burning your trash.

By burning your trash, instead of leaving behind a pile of trash you’ll simply be leaving behind a burnt pile of trash. Get with the program and pack out all of your trash (and that includes toilet paper).

The easiest way to pack out your trash is to not bring excessive packaging into the backcountry in the first place. Before you leave the house (or store if you’re picking something up on the way to the trailhead), field strip all of your food stuff into the most minimal of packaging so that you can collect everything you plan to dispose of in a Ziploc bag.

On a backpacking trip lasting a week or less, I won’t even come close to filling a gallon bag with my trash.

Inspect and Properly Maintain Your Vehicle 

Sometimes access to the trailhead requires you to drive on undeveloped roads through the backcountry. This is fun stuff! However, the experience can turn into a nightmare if your vehicle overheats, has an electrical issue and catches fire, or breaks due to physical stresses placed on the suspension.

Often along backcountry roads you’ll be operating at slower speeds for longer periods of time while negotiating variable terrain. This places stress on your vehicle’s engine by causing it to run at a higher temperature for a sustained period of time.

Make sure the engine oil and coolant are full and look clean. Be mindful or your vehicle, especially if its engine and undercarriage are coated with various fluids. Excessive fluid should compel you to have your vehicle checked out for leaks no matter where you plan to drive, but it’s especially important to address if you’re going to be driving under backcountry conditions. These fluids can catch fire due to a hot engine, sparks from electrical issues under the hood, or sparks caused by friction between the metal of your vehicle and rocks.

Always carry in your vehicle a fire extinguisher and have it readily available when driving along backcountry roads.

Also, everything on or in your vehicle will bounce around way more when driving on backcountry roads compared to regular paved road. Your suspension system will be under a lot of strain as a result, objects within the cab of your vehicle might fly around (and hit you or break a window), and more delicate parts such as wiring (under the hood) might move and make contact with other parts of the vehicle and cause problems.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
August 3, 2018: Looking south toward Luther Pass and Round Top. © Jared Manninen

Last Thoughts about Wildfires

Regardless of where you live, it’s imperative to determine the local forecast and weather conditions for your planned destination and timeframe in order to be better prepared for your adventure. If you’re visiting Lake Tahoe, the following short list features websites that provide relevant information about current conditions:

As much as I complain about the smoke, I understand that it is only an inconvenience and not a life-changing event like losing a home or a loved one.

That said, moderate or modify your activities when recreating in an area where smoke has accumulated due to wildfires. And although governing bodies can implement and enforce laws, ultimately the individual is the only entity who will prove to be the best (or worst) steward of wild lands. Like Smokey says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
August 6, 2018: Looking northeast toward Meyers and South Lake Tahoe. Compare this photo with the first one in the article as they were taken from similar vantage points. © Jared Manninen