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The Vast (and Fast) Ballet of Fighting Fires

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Washoe Fire

At about 1 p.m. on Saturday, August 18, a propane barbecue sitting on a porch at 1525 Washoe Way malfunctioned. The resulting Washoe Fire was contained by 11 p.m. that night, but in those ten hours, 30 mph gusts drove the fire over roughly 20 acres of residential and forested land. In the end, the flames consumed five homes and damaged three others. Six vehicles also suffered in the blaze.

Within four minutes of the first report, fire fighters from North Tahoe Fire Protection District were on the scene. But according to North Tahoe Fire spokesman Ed Miller, that’s not an unusually fast response time. 'I don’t want to say [our fire fighters] are superhuman,' Miller said, 'But they’re ready for rapid response.'

North Tahoe Fire staff initially assumed command of the situation, but when the flames began to spread into the woods they sounded a second alarm and turned authority over to the Forest Service. Eventually, nine local fire agencies, one county fire agency, three sheriffs departments, Truckee police, Cal Fire, the Coast Guard, and one inmate crew became involved in the fire-fighting effort.

Miller explained that when fires ignite, the various agencies coordinate under one Incident Command System. In the meantime they maintain 'mutual aid agreements' and train together regularly so that when a fire does occur, they’re ready.

'In the vast ballet that is the fighting of a fire, all the agencies work very well together,' Miller said.

At press time, the total number of personnel involved was not available.

No one knows what drove the barbecue to malfunction. It has been taken to an independent lab for interrogation.

Interstate 80 Fire

At 1:50 p.m. on August 22, Truckee Fire Protection District received the first report of flames next to Interstate 80 near the Donner Lake interchange. At 1:58 p.m. the first fire fighters arrived on the scene. By the time it was extinguished on August 24, the 80 Fire had burned 78 acres of the hillside above the interstate.

The fire started when a contractor working for Sierra Pacific Power accidentally felled a tree onto a power line. The contractor had been hired to remove trees that could fall on power lines.

Staff from Truckee Fire’s ninth Battalion were the first to assume command of the situation, but they eventually ceded control to Cal Fire. As with the Washoe Fire, a large number of agencies arrived to suppress the 80 Fire. Four hours after the fire started a variety of local fire and law enforcement teams, as well as the Forest Service, California Highway Patrol, Cal Trans, and State parks had joined the scene. Truckee Fire spokesman Gene Welch estimated that by 5:45 p.m. on August 22, 300 personnel were involved with the fire.

The flames burned to within one-quarter mile of the roughly 6,000 homes in Tahoe Donner, but no structures were destroyed. Cal Fire credited the preservation of Tahoe Donner to a fuel break maintained by Truckee Fire and Tahoe Donner’s own forestry division. But the fuel break wasn’t the only place fuel levels were low, two previous fires had reduced them throughout the whole area. In 2003, between 70 and 100 acres of the terrain burned, and in 1960 the monstrous 'Donner Ridge Fire' consumed 45,000 acres, some of which burned again in the 80 Fire.

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November 8, 2018