Wildfires a hot topic at weather conference in Stateline | TheUnion.com

Wildfires a hot topic at weather conference in Stateline

Bill Rozak
Special to The Union
Cal Fire Chief Chris Anthony speaks to an audience on Monday during Operation Sierra Storm, a national weather conference, at Harveys Lake Tahoe.
Bill Rozak / Tahoe Daily Tribune

STATELINE, Nev. — Wildfires are feasting on overgrown, overcrowded and undermanaged forests, and warmer temperatures have created longer fire seasons leading officials to try to prevent another environmental catastrophe.

That was all just part of the discussion Monday during Operation Sierra Storm, a national weather conference sponsored by the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority at Harveys Lake Tahoe.

Dozens of media members from across the country listened to a panel discussion between Chris Anthony, Cal Fire staff chief; Rich Thompson, from the National Weather Service; and Scott Strenfel, from PG&E. CNN’s Chad Meyers moderated the event. The panel then participated in a question and answer session with the audience.

Anthony talked about how wildfires have become more intense and deadly due to tree mortality that was caused by the California drought from 2011-17. Anthony this year was put in charge of the wildfire resilience program after the approval of Senate Bill 901 that appropriated $165 million for healthy forests. He said there are approximately 150 million dead trees in the state.

“We have arrived at this present emergency due to fire exclusion, forest management policies that have created overgrown and overcrowded forests and unresilient landscapes to fire, drought, insects and disease. It’s the legacy of the historic drought in California that still has an impact today on how wildfires burn.”

He said fire seasons have grown by 78 days a year over the last 40 years, and higher temperatures at night have created more challenges on gaining control of blazes.

“At night is when we really get the upper hand. Higher temps change that dynamic,” Anthony said.

And once again the conversation looped around to comparing Lake Tahoe to Paradise and a possible Camp Fire in the basin.

The basic answer is “yes,” it can happen. The vegetation density in Lake Tahoe exceeds what was in Paradise.

Worst-case scenario

What worries Anthony, who looks at worst-case scenarios, is that a fire will start at night during the summer when the South Shore is loaded with tourists who are unfamiliar with the area. Where they can put people when Highway 50 becomes a parking lot, and where they set up command posts, media staging and animal rescue areas are all concerns.

“That’s the stuff that keeps me up at night,” Anthony said after the conference. “When we get those weather events, it could happen at night. Realizing we don’t have a lot of people not familiar with the area and our capabilities to be able to manage that.

“But we have great partnerships here in Tahoe,” Anthony added. “We’re all sitting down at a table figuring this out before it happens, so we don’t have to make these decisions in the middle of an event from the back of our pick up trucks. We clearly have a lot of work to do here. This is an emergency that everyone needs to address.”

Thompson, with the weather service, was rebuked by some media complaining about the labeling of fire weather, saying it’s confusing.

The weather service uses “Red Flag Warnings” when the weather produces an increased risk of wildfire.

In Colorado, red flag refers to a gun control law, which is also common elsewhere in the country.

Thompson said there have been talks about coming up with new names for their “products,” and that they are working on addressing the messaging.

Strenfel talked about how difficult the decision is when PG&E cuts off power. He said the utility speaks with the weather service every day during high risk times “making sure the two are aligned.”

“We’re trying to prevent 2017 and 2018 from happening all over again,” Strenfel said.

He also answered why the power cutoff is so sudden and the power restoration is so slow.

“When we reenergize, we know we had a strong event wash over our territory. As easy as it would be to just turn on the power, we have to investigate each line, and it’s a step-by-step process,” Strenfel said. “A lot of those lines have to be manually patrolled and visually inspected. If we were to reenergize without inspecting and cause a fire, that’s the last thing we want to do.”

PG&E is installing weather stations and expects to have 1,000 in place this year and 1,300 by 2022.

Strenfel also said the utility is filing its state-mandated wildfire plan around Feb. 13.

Bill Rozak is a reporter with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to The Union. He can be reached at brozak@tahoedailytribune.com.

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