‘We do it together’: how a Lake Tahoe community prepared to flee the Caldor fire

There is only one way out of the Golden Bear neighborhood in South Lake Tahoe, and as the flames of the Caldor fire crept closer on Monday that could easily have turned into a catastrophe.

But as the fire bore down on the neighborhood, a cluster of a couple of hundred homes tucked into the conifer-covered mountainside near the famous カリフォルニア lake, residents didn’t panic. They packed.

“On our street we were all evacuated within 10 に 15 minutes of getting the call,” said resident Donarae Reynolds. She and her husband, along with their two dogs Marley and Marlin left hours before the major thruways were choked with thousands of vehicles ordered to evacuate the town as the fire approached.

“We got the mandatory evacuation and everyone was ready,” Reynolds said on Tuesday from an area just outside Sacramento. “Everyone calmly got their things together and we didn’t face any traffic at all.”

The Caldor fire had burned more than 204,000 acres by Wednesday morning, and was just 20% contained. Hot, dry conditions continue to complicate firefighting efforts as gusty winds fanned the flames down the canyons and closer to the communities in South Lake Tahoe below. ほぼ 35,000 structures remain under threat, including those in the Golden Bear neighborhood.

But Reynolds and her neighbors had been preparing for this for years. The Golden Bear community became the first South Lake Tahoe neighborhood to earn its National Firewise USA Designation, a title issued by the National Fire Protection Association, に 2020. Two years prior – after a local house caught fire and threatened others – neighbors banded together to organize evacuation drills, partner with state agencies, and share information about best practices.

Fellow-resident Steve Martenson, who helps run the homeowners association website that disseminates information and emergency updates, said the close calls the neighborhood had with fire spurred him and others to act. “It made us realize that there is more that we can do without relying on local heroes,” he said in a statement last year. “We wanted to know how we could help ourselves and take steps to make our community safer.”

As the Caldor fire surged toward their town, consuming other communities in its path, Martenson was preparing to put their practice into play even before the official evacuation orders were given. He said that neighbors have been talking about their go-bags, their evacuation checklists and the plans in place long before the blaze became a behemoth. 今, knowing that each of his neighbors safely and calmly vacated the area, he said it worked flawlessly.

“To find out that everyone got out and we didn’t have any traffic jam at our street with one egress point – that could very easily have become a tremendous choke point” he said. “All of the planning and everything we have been through set us up for success because then it just became implementation time.”

Martenson recalled how different it was last time flames threatened the region, when a wind-driven wildfire swept through El Dorado county in 2007 and torched more than 200 homes in the area. He hadn’t been ready. The fire was already visible from the top of his subdivision before he began to prepare and by then it was too late. “We jumped in the car and said, ‘We are out of here’, and left everything behind. No planning, no way to deal," 彼は言った. It would be another decade before the threat resurfaced, this time a smaller ignition at a neighbor’s home.

今, each spring before fire season begins, the neighborhood hosts an annual clean-up day to clear properties and homes of ignition-prone plants, feature firefighter tutorials and test out emergency alert systems.

They rake leaves. They cut down trees that are too close to structures. They clear piles of firewood that are stacked near homes or under decks. “You don’t realize that all it takes is one ember landing in that stuff and the whole neighborhood goes up,” Martenson said.

そして, もちろん, they staged the very first evacuation drill ever held in the Tahoe Basin.

Homeowners invested hundreds of hours setting up defensible spaces and close to $13,000 に 2019 alone to earn the designation, and partnered with Tahoe Resource Conservation District’s Fire Adapted Communities Program, a local agency-run collaboration between neighborhoods, local fire districts, and public land management agencies.

When they earned the designation last year, the neighborhood was one of only 1,500 in the country. Others have since followed.

Now there are nearly 1,900 neighborhoods certified across the nation, according to Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, a program specialist with the National Fire Protection Association.

“It is a program targeted at residents,” Fitzgerald-McGowan said. “It is built on the idea that the condition of the home and its immediate surroundings dictate its chance of surviving a wildfire.”

The program is community-focused by design. The chances of stopping or slowing a wildfire is much higher when neighbors work together to employ fire protective strategies.

“Living in a wildfire area isn’t a one-and-done. It is an ongoing commitment you have to be aware of and you have to plan for,” Fitzgerald-McGowan said. “If you live there you acknowledge you are doing your part.”

Reynolds credits their camaraderie for the town’s resilience and readiness. She said neighbors help neighbors clear yards. If someone new moves to town, Reynolds said, they are given a go-bag and updated information on what to do when disaster strikes.

“We have a database with everyone in it," 彼女は言いました. “We have information on people who need special assistance.

“We prepared our homes as best we can and that can be helpful to firefighters to help defend your home,” Reynolds said, noting that neighbors have been sharing intel from their home security cameras capturing current conditions outside their homes. The fire has already exhibited extreme behavior and the strategies these residents employed may still not be enough to save them. But it has given them a fighting chance.

Even if they burn down, Martenson said the neighborhood is still in it together. “All we can do is hope for the best and deal with whatever happens as a community," 彼は言った. “My house might be untouched but my neighbor’s could be destroyed," 彼が追加した. “But whatever we do, we will do it together, to make sure we can rebuild.”