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The Lake Tahoe Basin is seeing the predicted effects of climate change happening now — less snow and more rain, and larger, more intense wildfires. Land managers need to adapt how we plan for and actively manage the land under our care in the Tahoe Basin and throughout California.

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By Jane Freeman, Special to CalMatters

Jane Freeman is acting director of the California Tahoe Conservancy, jane.freeman@tahoe.ca.gov.

Fire officials recently allowed my family to return to our home in Markleeville in Alpine County following evacuation for the Tamarack Fire. The fire, started by lightning on July 4, blew up quickly on July 16. Residents and emergency personnel had very little time to react. While there are questions about the decision to let the fire burn rather than to immediately extinguish it, there also are important lessons for the Lake Tahoe Basin and the rest of California.

Lake Tahoe is a national treasure that welcomes three times as many annual visitors as Yosemite. Yet with its risk of wildfire, millions of visitors, 65,000 residents and abundant public lands, the basin is a microcosm of California. The California Tahoe Conservancy, a state agency, and its partners are actively using the best science, technology and data to help us identify new and creative solutions to climate-related threats, including wildfire, while balancing this with expediency.

Of course, all of this takes resources. 

In 2019, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team ― a collaborative group of more than 20 fire protection agencies, land managers and the Washoe Tribe ― identified that the full cost to protect communities and restore forestland throughout the basin would run more than $20 million per year. 

Earlier this year, the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration approved $1 million in early-action funding for the conservancy. These critical funds enabled us to increase the number of seasonal fire crews who are out removing flammable brush and small trees from overly dense forest on our lands this summer. But the need to protect Tahoe forests and communities remains great.

The Legislature and Newsom administration remain in budget negotiations that are expected to continue through the end of the legislative session in September. The governor has proposed spending another $11 million to further reduce hazardous fuels on thousands of conservancy-owned lots, most of which sit within residential neighborhoods. This would dramatically increase protections for our neighbors. Yet even that does not meet the needs identified by our fire agencies and fellow land managers. 

The conservancy, with our partners, recently released a Climate Adaptation Primer, which describes anticipated impacts of climate change on Tahoe communities and natural resources. Included is earlier snow melt, less snow and more rain, hotter temperatures and larger, more intense wildfires. Unfortunately, Tahoe communities and the world are seeing these types of changes much sooner than predicted. 

Tahoe had record-breaking temperatures at the time the Tamarack Fire started. And these higher temperatures are not only causing drier, more flammable vegetation. Scientists continue to see threats to the lake’s clarity and ecosystem.

With these changes happening now and into the future, we as land managers are adapting how we manage the land under our care.

In the case of wildfires, this means considering drought, temperature, wind, proximity of communities and local experience when making decisions about whether to use fire as a management tool. And it means getting ahead of the next fire by aggressively treating our land to thin overly dense forest to reduce wildfire risk. I saw firsthand how clearing trees and brush from around my house, coupled with thinning trees and brush along the perimeter of the community, made the difference for state and local firefighters to protect homes in the fire’s path.

We remain hopeful for funding ― including for grants our agency could provide to our regional partners ― to reduce wildfire risk for Tahoe communities. This work would protect Tahoe’s $3 billion tourism economy and truly set the basin on a path to resilience so that future generations can continue to enjoy all that Lake Tahoe has to offer.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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