August 29, 2004

Tahoe Fire Reports

What I’ve been working on at work for the last couple of weeks: Lake Tahoe Wildfire Hazard Assessments. One for North Lake Tahoe, and one for Tahoe-Douglas around the Stateline casinos. They’re part of the million-dollar, state-funded project we’re in the middle of, to look at every inhabited part of the state and figure out how high the risk of wildfire is. I was handed these final reports as 22MB PDF files, each with a dozen additional PDFs at 1.5MB each. My task? Convert to HTML for our website. And since Acrobat produces some of the worst HTML I’ve ever seen (yes, worse than MS Word), it basically came down to creating templates from scratch and just copying and pasting in 150 pages of text. Twice. The result is 300kb of valid HTML.

The reports themselves go into more detail about what a tinderbox Lake Tahoe really is. Of the nine neighborhoods the report covers, three of them are rated as extreme fire hazard and five are high. The culprits are always the same: a hundred years of drought, beetles, disease and firefighting has turned the Tahoe forests into a dense tangle of dry, dead, and dying trees and brush. Any fire that starts on the ground would quickly find its way into the treetops, where it could quickly spread, especially if it’s being driven by high winds, and drop down onto houses from above. This plan calls for going into these areas of extreme hazard, clearing out the brush, removing dead trees, and restoring the forest closer to what it was before the white man came.

Further down this page are a couple of photograph, taken 120 years apart, that show how bad things have gotten. The Tahoe forests are naturally thin, with trees spaced far apart. But in the late 1800s every tree at Tahoe was cut down and sent to Carson City and Virginia City, to be used to build houses and shore up the mines. So the forest we have now only dates back to then, and without the natural thinning that comes from periodic fire it has grown into a dense tangle.

The same problem is happening all over the West. We’re trying to find the right balance between putting fires out, which is our instinctual reaction, and letting them burn, which is essential for healthy forests. When you have places like Lake Tahoe, where the houses are literally in the middle of the forest, things become really tricky. And that’s why my company hires a lot of really smart foresters and ecologists to find solutions, while leaving me to make the websites.

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