Amid brutal fire season, inmate firefighters see obstacles, wages described as ‘a form of enslavement’

On the heels of a smoky summer, Northern Nevada is finally seeing blue skies and some control over rampant blazes. But for their work helping keep forest fires at bay, inmate firefighters are still paid well below the federal minimum wage, something state officials have said they want to change.

In an Executive Branch Audit Committee meeting in June, then-Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall said she believed the current rate of pay, $24 per day of work, was “a form of enslavement.” Attorney General Aaron Ford echoed the sentiment and said the subminimum wage and work required of incarcerated firefighters reminded him of “convict leasing,” a system of forced labor historically practiced on Black men in the American South that survives in some places today.

Leaders at the Nevada Division of Forestry said they’re working on a small increase to wages, but a substantial increase isn’t feasible until the state creates a new budget with more funding for the program. 

Mike Osborn — spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — said the state Division of Forestry employs 74 conservation crew supervisors who train 740 inmates, 185 of whom are assigned to fight fires. The program was initially designed in the 1950s to help incarcerated people transition back into society by providing them with paid, skilled work leading up to their release.

For fighting wildland fires, on top of the $24 per day, inmates can earn a sentence reduction of up to 45 days based on the time that they work. They can earn 15 more days if they choose to receive training based on national firefighting standards, with opportunities for future employment. In comparison, state-employed firefighters earn in an hour of training what inmates earn for an entire day of work.

Only incarcerated people in minimum security facilities and within two years of release are eligible for the work. Personnel numbers have remained relatively stable despite worsening fires in recent years, according to State Forester Kacey KC. 

Incarcerated crews make up about 30 percent of the division’s fire response capacity. Combined with local, state, and federal government and contract workers, those crews are 1 percent of all firefighting forces in Nevada, Osborn said.

KC added that the Division of Forestry has been working on a proposal to increase inmate wages across the board and expand some benefits, such as time off sentences. But she said that hinges on the next budget that the state passes, and isn’t immediately resolvable.

Marshall suggested that the department should request more funds for their work if it means inmates would be paid more.

“If the forestry division is saying that they don't have the money to do proper firefighting programs,” Marshall said in an interview with The Nevada Independent, “then I think that there are numerous ways right now where we have a lot of money coming into the state to turn around and apply for that money and make sure that we are properly funding them.”

In the audit meeting, Marshall also raised concerns that inmates who finish their sentence face a number of obstacles to becoming employed to do the firefighting work they trained for. She pointed out that the forestry division had only recently hired one formerly incarcerated individual for firefighting work. 

“They may not be able to clear their record, and so therefore may not be able to work on a firefighting line, because they have a record; they may not be able to get a license,” Marshall said at the audit meeting. “There are things that we can do — expedited expungement, the ability to leave your county to work fire lines.”

KC said the forestry department had so far hired two individuals out of the inmate training program. The Division of Forestry said they do not have more specific numbers on how many people from the program went on to work for firefighting forces following their release, citing a “do not fraternize” policy with the Department of Corrections. 

“Inmates are able to apply directly with state, federal, and contract wildland fire crews upon release and have been successfully hired on multiple occasions,” Osborn said in a statement to The Nevada Independent

Marshall also referenced new legislation from California designed to strengthen the career pipeline and said similar policies could empower Nevadans who have served their time. California’s law cleared the way to future employment for incarcerated people pursuing firefighting careers upon their release, expunging records to limit restrictions applicants might otherwise face. 

The Department of Corrections did not reply to multiple requests for comment on its collaboration with the Division of Forestry and responsibilities running the program.

Marshall said she wants to see another audit conducted on what a wage increase would look like and how to best make it happen. An audit would have to be directed by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office; it is unclear whether there are plans for such an audit. 

The governor’s office did not reply to multiple requests for comment on whether a second audit looking into increasing wages is being planned or currently underway.

As fire threatened Tahoe, small army of volunteers sprung up to house evacuees

Two weeks after thousands of South Lake Tahoe residents fled their homes, the flames of the Caldor Fire threatening to consume the tourist destination, Stephanie is relieved to be back in her house again.

Officials lifted evacuation orders for most in the area earlier this week after firefighters worked to contain the spread of the fire, which has scorched more than 200,000 acres as of last week and destroyed at least 780 structures. But the blaze, which has burned for nearly a month, has left its mark on the town of about 20,000 residents. 

“It's still not back to normal,” said Stephanie, 60, and who asked to be identified only by her first name. “We don't have any mail. And there's not much in the grocery stores and … they're letting people back in a little bit by little bit. It's just eerie. But we're home. There's no place like home.”

The disaster was a chance for the Northern Nevada and Northern California community to rally, however, as many South Lake Tahoe evacuees struggled to find places to stay. Shelters filled up within days of the sweeping evacuation orders and hotel prices surged during Labor Day weekend.

Watching the exodus of residents fleeing the area in nearby Truckee, Jenelle Potvin felt helpless and wanted to help people like Stephanie. Using her administrative skills, Potvin got to work, creating a grassroots local effort to find no-cost housing for evacuees, their families and pets. 

“It started out pretty small,” Potvin said. “I thought, maybe I'll be able to help, like, 10 people that can't afford to stay in a hotel or don't have the means to do that for however long this lasts … and it kind of exploded.” 

Potvin took a week off from work at a private equity firm to focus on her efforts, which expanded as she began to collaborate with others in the community and in nearby Reno who also wanted to pitch in. By the end of last week, Potvin was working long hours into the early mornings, with the help of 12 others, to match South Tahoe evacuees to houses or rooms offered by hosts across the Truckee, Reno, Northern California, North Tahoe areas and Nevadans in rural areas, such as Silver Springs and Fernley. 

“By Friday, I had a pretty solid team where it was still all-consuming, but at least I could handle the volume of phone calls and texts that were coming in,” she said. 

While some focused on finding housing for evacuees, others focused on distributing money, food and clothing. 

As of this week, Potvin said the team had made 102 matches, including Stephanie, who stayed in a spare room in Potvin’s home. Potvin and others helped more than 350 people and 154 pets find housing amid the uncertain and fraught situation. 

“We gave them hope,” she said. “They had felt like things could not get any worse. So it was extremely rewarding to hear the relief in their voices when they found out that people cared about them.” 

Jenelle Potvin poses for a portrait with her dog, Molly, in Truckee, California on Sept. 9, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Finding silver linings 

Potvin said she was blown away by the outpouring of support and kindness from people across California and Nevada who reached out to offer their homes, time, money or supplies. 

One experience, in which the team struggled to find housing for a family of five with six cats, two dogs and a caged rat, particularly struck her. Most people were hesitant to take in the family with many pets, until a woman in Silver Springs reached out. 

“She took them in,” Potvin said. “I found so many people from these rural areas in Nevada, that I haven't visited myself, that would reach out to me every day saying, ‘I want to help. How can I help? Is there anybody on the list?’ We had trouble getting people that wanted to go that far away. But they wanted to help so bad, and they offered to feed the evacuees, they offered to do runs to Walmart to get supplies that they needed.” 

Potvin had also been alerted about a 77-year-old woman recovering from breast cancer who was living in her car in a Walmart parking lot after being evacuated from her home. A woman from Fernley volunteered to find the evacuee, drove around Walmart stores until she found her, then took her back to her home in Fernley and cared for her. 

Potvin said it was the hardest she’s ever worked. In all of it, though, the people she and her team were reaching out to found a silver lining. 

“The main part of it is all of these strangers coming together to help each other,” she said. “That's the beauty. There was a lot of loss and it's really sad, but I think it restored some faith in humanity in a lot of people.”

Potvin said she’d like to continue the efforts in the case of future fires, but with the support of a nonprofit organization. 

Future implications, not leaving home

When Stephanie saw the evacuation warning on a Sunday evening in late August, she decided to hold off on leaving her home until the next morning, when she could see the roads better through the thick smoke. She planned to drive to Truckee and take the train to Oregon, where she could stay with her sister for a while. 

But she had stopped at an old coworker’s house in Truckee first, where she heard about Potvin’s efforts to find housing for evacuees. Stephanie reached out and Potvin offered her a spare room in her home. 

“It was traumatic for everybody,” Stephanie said. “Nobody had an easy time. It was just hard. It was a very scary thing. Everybody was disrupted … I will remember that for the rest of my life, and how wonderful it was, in such a horrid and terrifying situation.”

The Caldor Fire had the worrisome distinction of crossing the Sierra Nevada, thought to be virtually impassable by fires because of the granite sections of mountain range. The Dixie Fire, burning north of the Caldor for more than a month, also crossed the Sierra Nevada earlier this summer. 

Megafires such as these are becoming increasingly common each year in the West, posing an existential question to those living in areas most vulnerable to fires, such as the Tahoe Basin. 

Stephanie, who moved to South Tahoe in the 1960s as a young girl, said she has made up her mind — she’s staying home. 

“Why do the people live in New Orleans? Because in the fall, they always get the hurricanes … Look at Katrina,” she said. “It's because they're like me, in love with their home.” 

She said the community needs to better prepare for disasters like wildfires in order to take care of the people in it.

“I grew up here, I lived here my whole life,” Stephanie said. “I wouldn’t really be happy anywhere else, because there’s no other place like Tahoe.”

Lake Tahoe casinos begin reopening as Caldor Fire evacuation orders are lifted

South Lake Tahoe’s casino market is slowly getting back to business after the Caldor Fire forced a week-long shutdown of gaming and tourism operations just ahead of what was expected to be a busy Labor Day Weekend.

Most of the mandatory evacuations that covered both the California and Nevada sides of the Lake Tahoe area had been rescinded by Tuesday. Hard Rock Lake Tahoe reopened its gaming floor on Tuesday afternoon, and MontBleu Casino Resort reopened its property Wednesday morning.

Harrah’s Lake Tahoe and Harveys Tahoe, which are both operated by Caesars Entertainment, will open in phases beginning Wednesday evening that will last into next week.

“We are tremendously grateful for the fire crews and first responders who continue to work tirelessly to keep the South Lake Tahoe and Stateline areas safe while battling the Caldor Fire,” Karie L. Hall, general manager of the two properties, said in a statement. 

Harrah’s will reopen its casino floor in stages, with slot machine operations resuming Wednesday evening and table games on Thursday evening. The property’s hotel and restaurants will reopen Thursday and Friday.

Harveys Tahoe won’t reopen until next week. The gaming area will open on Sept. 16, followed by the hotel and restaurants on Sept. 17.

Hard Rock Lake Tahoe is operated by Las Vegas-based Paragon Gaming, while Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp. operates MontBleu. The properties were used by firefighters and first responders last week as command centers, including housing for firefighters. A spokeswoman for Bally’s said the resort is housing 150 firefighters.

“The decision to open tonight was in part to help their team members return to normalcy and simply get them back to their daily routines,” according to a statement sent late Tuesday by Hard Rock’s outside public relations representative.

The Stateline casinos had been anticipating a busy end of the summer weekend in an area known the world over for outdoor recreation activities and picturesque Lake Tahoe, as well as for gaming. However, gaming operators also began to prepare for the worst a week earlier, canceling scheduled entertainment — including concerts by Eric Church and Phish —  as the fire grew in California.

Gaming revenues in South Lake Tahoe increased 27 percent through July compared to the first seven months of 2019, according to the Gaming Control Board.

The Associated Press reported last week that several businesses outside the fire zone were being criticized for price-gouging activities. Inside the fire zone, the 438-room MontBleu offered discounted room rates for evacuees, $60 rates for firefighters and first responders, and free lodging for its employees displaced by the fire.

However, the Associated Press reported that MontBleu also increased its regular room prices more than two-and-a-half times the normal rate to discourage tourists from traveling near the wildfire and to keep rooms available for evacuees. In a statement, MontBleu General Manager Tim Tretton said the company planned to pay back the difference to those who booked at the higher cost, he said.

"We did not and do not plan to collect on these rates, and have provided reimbursements or reductions, as appropriate,” Tretton said.

As of Tuesday morning, according to The Associated Press, the Caldor Fire was about 49 percent contained, and authorities didn’t anticipate full containment until Sept. 27. It has burned through 216,000 acres, including portions of Christmas Valley, Meyers and other areas south of the lake. The fire burned to just a few miles south of South Lake Tahoe but never came close to the shoreline.

Updated at 4:11 p.m. on 9/8/2021 to include comments from Caesars Entertainment.

Sisolak plans to reconstitute mining oversight board that stopped meeting in 2015

Trucks at mine site.

Gov. Steve Sisolak plans to revive a mining oversight board — with the power to request audits, review regulations, call witnesses and subpoena documents — after state officials let the commission quietly wither in the six years since it held its last recorded meeting. 

In 2011, the Legislature approved the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission with a bipartisan vote. But the board, meant to function similarly to the Gaming Commission, never fully got off the ground, even when it had a quorum. The board, housed in the Department of Taxation, lacked resources, former board members told The Nevada Independent last year. 

Sisolak’s office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the governor plans to make five appointments to the seven-member panel with the intention of restarting meetings. 

Under the statute governing the commission, legislative leaders from both parties are required to submit recommendations for members to the governor’s office. The governor must choose five members from among those selections, and he can appoint two members of his own choosing. Only two members of the commission are allowed to have a connection to the mining industry. 

Sisolak plans to appoint Jerry Pfarr, a former vice president with Newmont, and Anthony Ruiz, a  senior adviser of government relations and community affairs for Nevada State College. 

Based on recommendations from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sisolak also plans to appoint Jose Witt, executive director of the Southern Nevada Conservancy, and Pam Harrington, a field coordinator with Trout Unlimited who is based in northeastern Nevada, where the state’s largest mining entity, Nevada Gold Mines, operates large mines and ranches.

Sisolak’s fifth appointment, recommended by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), will be Melissa Clary, the office confirmed. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Clary to the commission in January 2018, but her term expired without her attending a single meeting.

The governor’s office is still working with legislative leaders on the final two appointments.

It is unclear how the still relatively new commission will function and what oversight it will provide an industry that carries significant influence throughout state government. Legislators have discussed, on several occasions, doing away with the board, but mining watchdog groups have long argued that there is still a role for the commission to discuss issues with the industry. 

Most of the state’s mines operate outside of Nevada’s large metropolitan areas, but they have a significant influence in the state’s rural economy, workforce and natural resources. Reviving the commission comes as state policymakers from both parties are actively pushing for Nevada to become a key destination for mining the critical metals, including lithium, needed in the supply chain for electric vehicles and other technologies that could help address climate change. 

In 2021, the Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy organization, ranked Nevada as the most attractive place in the world for mining investment. The report ranked nearly 80 jurisdictions based on their geologic potential and whether government policies encourage investment.

Judge denies Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe request to halt activity at Thacker Pass mine site

District Court Judge Miranda Du again denied a petition to delay preliminary excavations at the planned Thacker Pass lithium mine on Friday, a decision that means work at the mine site can continue but one that could also set up a conflict with demonstrators camped in the area.

Attorneys for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Burns Paiute Tribe and the People of Red Mountain had sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the company developing the mine, Lithium Nevada, from starting on digging that they said could destroy artifacts and remains. 

Ground disturbance in the area would cause irreparable harm, the attorneys argued in court last week, noting that Indigenous communities in the Great Basin consider Peehee mu’huh, or Thacker Pass, the site of a massacre and an area for religious ceremonies, sacred. 

The digging is part of a cultural survey that the company plans to conduct in accordance with a Historic Properties Treatment Plan (HPTP), approved by federal land managers and a requisite for beginning mine construction. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is working on issuing a permit, under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, to conduct the cultural survey.

In a technical legal ruling on Friday, Du wrote that the tribes’ arguments did not meet the high legal standards needed to issue a preliminary injunction as the underlying case is litigated.

“In sum, while the Court finds the Tribes’ arguments regarding the spiritual distress that the HPTP will cause persuasive, the Court must nonetheless reluctantly conclude that they have not shown sufficiently specific irreparable harm that aligns with the relief they could ultimately obtain in this case,” Du wrote, noting that the court has not ruled on the merits of the claims.

Du wrote that she plans to rule on the merits of the case and claims that the federal government fast-tracked an environmental approval of the mine before construction begins on the lithium project. The Thacker Pass project is one of several mines seeking permits to operate amid a national push to secure domestic supplies of lithium, a key ingredient for electric vehicles.

But the project has drawn vocal opposition and raised serious concerns from Native American tribes, environmentalists and local ranchers near the mine site in northern Humboldt County.

The legal issue, examined by Du in the order on Friday, was whether the federal agency had erred in meeting its requirement to consult with Native American tribes on mining projects that are connected to their ancestral lands. The agency, charged with managing federal public land across Nevada, said that it made a good-faith and reasonable effort to consult with tribes. 

A government attorney told the court that it initiated formal consultation with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe and the Winnemucca Indian Colony.

Attorneys for the tribes argued that the agency’s formal consultation should have included other Indigenous communities in the Great Basin who are connected to the land near the mine site. 

But the judge appeared persuaded by evidence, presented at the hearing, that the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Burns Paiute Tribe had “disclaimed an interest” in the Thacker Pass area based on regional planning documents and past communications. In addition, the order noted that extensive ground disturbance had already taken place in the area.

Since the project was approved by the Trump administration in January, a group of protesters with the group Protect Thacker Pass has camped at the mine site. The protesters have indicated that they are prepared to take direct action to prevent any disturbance from occurring.  

In late July, Du denied a request for an injunction based on different grounds.

Caldor Fire, NSHE Chancellor, and weddings coming back in Vegas

This week, Reporter Daniel Rothberg and Host Joey Lovato talk about the still raging Caldor Fire, which has forced mass evacuations in South Lake Tahoe. After that, Reporter and Cohost Jacob Solis sits down with Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Chancellor Melody Rose to talk about vaccine mandates for students and possible mandates for staff. At the end of the show, Reporter Sean Golonka reports on the resurgence of the wedding industry in Las Vegas after the pandemic.

0:55 - Caldor Fire

12:40 - NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose

22:55 - Weddings returning to Las Vegas

29:40 - Outro / Credits

Historic climate moment keeps photographer going back behind the fire lines

Freelance photographer Christian Monterrosa arrived at South Lake Tahoe during a mass evacuation from the tourist town earlier this week — cars idling on the few roads out, weary faces peering into brown skies.

But he said the surreal part of covering the Caldor Fire was then heading in the opposite direction of the exodus, to document the uncertain fate of everything that those tens of thousands of people left behind.

Monterrosa has trained to cover fires, suiting up in safety gear on assignment and even taking a three-month wildland firefighting course to learn fire suppression techniques so he could better understand what he sees through his lens. But the relentlessness of this fire season has taken its toll.

“In the past fire seasons, I'll have a week or two before another fire springs up, and it's usually not like a major national story,” he said. “This one felt different, because I had just spent like 10 days at the Dixie Fire … It's basically like you can't escape it, right? I'm going to different parts of the state and it's still burning here, too.”

Behind the fire lines where few people go, some days are smokier than others. Firefighters can be calm and collected. But he also witnessed shock and disbelief earlier this week when crews that were trying to keep the flames above Highway 50 heard over the radio that it had leaped to the other side of Highway 89 a few miles away.

“The new firefighters that showed up there were just very confused,” Monterrosa said. “Everyone was like, ‘How did this happen? Like, this is crazy. Like, we don't see stuff like this. Like, this fire behavior’s unheard of.’”

Of the photos he captured while on assignment for The Nevada Independent, one that stands out to Monterrosa is of a deserted motel with its “no vacancy” sign. It struck him as a contradiction, suspended above an empty parking lot, but also as an omen. 

“The word vacancy, sort of, is a foretelling as to where we're headed with these fires and this problem of this climate crisis that we're seeing,” he said. “There will be a time in which there will be vacancy, and there will be emptiness everywhere, because ... all of these places will become uninhabitable.”

Monterrosa said the work of photographing fire — and people fleeing for their lives — is physically and emotionally taxing. At the same time, he said he’s feeling even more motivated to cover these disasters, to document what he knows is a historic time for the environment, a turning point for the inhabitants and economy of Lake Tahoe.

Along with his camera gear, he carries a fire shelter. It’s an aluminized tent that can be deployed if flames suddenly overtake, and it offers a last hope to the person huddled inside that they’ll make it through the blazing temperatures alive. 

He said the gear offers a sense of security, in one way. But it also raises the questions of, “Oh my God, what am I doing here? … What am I doing with my life?”

“I really try not to think about the day, if that day ever comes, where I have to use it,” he said. “But it is scary to think that … the chances of that day coming are increasing year by year because I'm spending more and more time at these fires.”

Below are some of Monterrosa's photos of the Caldor Fire.

Firefighters with CalFire prepare a hose lay to protect nearby structures near Meyers, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Firefighters with CalFire prepare a hose lay to protect nearby structures near Meyers, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 31. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Firefighters with CalFire prepare a hose lay to protect nearby structures near Meyers, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Firefighters with CalFire prepare a hose lay to protect nearby structures near Meyers, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Firefighters with CalFire prepare a hose lay to protect nearby structures near Meyers, Calif. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Burnt homes smolder along Highway 50 in Twin Bridges, Calif. in El Dorado County on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
The Pinewood Inn sits empty in the smoke of the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Police and National Guard occupy the Stateline as Mandatory Evacuations close down South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
The Montbleu Casino and Hotel sits empty after being evacuated and open only for first responders on the Stateline of Nevada and California near South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
The streets sit empty with only first responders driving them after mandatory evacuations closed down the city in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
A helicopter picks up water to fight the Caldor Fire in Echo Lake, Calif. on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
Boats float amongst the smoke of the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)
LED signs of the Hard Rock and Montbleu Hotels thank first responders in the Stateline area of South Lake Tahoe on Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa / The Nevada Independent)

For Lake Tahoe, Caldor Fire brings uncertainty, dislocation and fears of a new normal

The wind whipped ash around in Carson City on Tuesday afternoon as Carlos Arce laid his hand on the bed of a white pick-up truck. The day before, Arce evacuated from South Lake Tahoe with his four children. He stood by the truck with his father, visiting from out of the country, in the parking lot of the Carson City Community Center, a shelter for evacuees.

“I’m feeling sad,” Arce said. “We lost almost everything. When I think of the mountain, it was beautiful. Now the fire is destroying everything, everything I know.” 

An evacuation unprecedented in scale. A devastating fire making a steady march toward the town. Another challenging moment in a summer that has seen many, as one fire after another, driven by extreme weather and drought, have threatened communities in the northern Sierra. In some cases, blazes like the Dixie Fire have flattened small towns, with few resources to rebuild.

Arce has lived in Lake Tahoe for about two decades. He recounted working at Sierra-at-Tahoe, a ski resort along Highway 50 that was hit by the Caldor Fire, the intense blaze threatening the lake’s southern and western landscapes. On Monday, photos showed snow machines at the resort being repurposed to fight the fire. These measures and others have helped fend off flames.

But all of these fights come with a sadness, and an uncertainty about losing a special place. 

As with other South Lake Tahoe residents who evacuated this week, Arce is hopeful he can return home. But the scope of the evacuation orders, which apply to all of South Lake Tahoe and neighboring lake communities in Nevada, give him pause. What is going to happen next?

By Tuesday afternoon, the Carson City evacuation center was at full capacity, as was the Red Cross outpost in Gardnerville. Evacuees were being directed to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. The Lyon County Fair Grounds and Dayton Event Center are open for camping.

Police and National Guard occupy the Stateline as Mandatory Evacuations close down South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The Nevada Independent)

The Lake Tahoe Basin, straddling the California and Nevada border, is a lot of things to a lot of people. South Lake Tahoe has a population of about 20,000 residents, a size that swells each weekend with tourists. As the COVID-19 pandemic set in and remote work became an option for some employees, residents from big cities, including San Francisco, moved in. 

Meanwhile, full-time residents, many who provide essential services to the community, felt the squeeze from the same economic issues facing other Western mountain towns whose economies rely on a delicate balance of attracting tourists and part-time residents — while supporting local residents.

Despite the mansions, private buoys and pristine boats, the median household income for South Lake Tahoe is $49,390, lower than what it is for other parts of California. When fire officials made the call to extend a mandatory evacuation across the town, it was a strain for many residents. Not everyone has money for gas, let alone a vehicle, to drive to Reno and stay there for weeks.

For decades, South Lake Tahoe has been preparing for the worst-case scenario, an evacuation on a citywide scale. But there are few points of comparison for the Caldor Fire.

Local residents point to the Angora Fire as the closest analog. That 2007 fire burned 3,100 acres and destroyed about 250 homes in a similar area of southwest Tahoe near Fallen Leaf Lake and Echo Lake. The fire is ingrained in many residents’ memories.

Darcie Goodman Collins grew up in South Lake Tahoe and now serves as the chief executive officer of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, a conservation group behind the “Keep Tahoe Blue” sticker. She said that the community rallied together, even as people were evacuating on short notice. Neighbors were calling neighbors who might be vulnerable. Phone trees lit up.

“It was all very surreal because it happened quickly,” she said.

Goodman Collins said she had been ready to evacuate for weeks. Her area of town was closest to the flank that poses one of the greatest threats to structures. She then went to her parents house on the other side of town. Soon, she was helping her parents evacuate too, as evacuation orders were extended.

Firefighters with CalFire prepare a hose lay to protect nearby structures near Meyers, California on Tuesday, August 31. (Christian Monterrosa/The Nevada Independent)

When the orders were extended, she said, “that’s when you realize it was a big fire.”

As of Wednesday evening, the Caldor Fire, which started miles away from the Tahoe Basin, had burned a massive landscape — about 207,931 acres — with 23 percent containment. The fire has destroyed 780 structures and injured five people. The situation remains dynamic. But so far, news reports suggest that crews have largely managed to protect structures clustered in the most populated communities around the lake’s southern edge.

In the West, where megafires are occurring more often and with extreme behavior, firefighting resources are called upon from different parts of the state and country. In the case of the Caldor Fire, crews have come from across California and Nevada to contain the fire and protect homes.

Some crews have returned to Lake Tahoe after battling other fires, including the Dixie Fire. That fire, one of the largest in California history, has burned 847,308 acres near the town of Quincy, about 80 miles northwest of Reno. As of Wednesday, the fire has burned more than 1,200 structures.

The Dixie Fire and the Caldor Fire are historic in how they have moved across the region. They are the first two known fires in California history to cross the Sierra Nevada. In the past, fire managers believed that granite sections of the mountain range would stem the spread of wildfire across the range. For Tim Brown, the director of the Western Regional Climate Center, the fire's movement is an indication of dry fuel and extreme conditions. 

“The thing that strikes me this time is that both Caldor and Dixie have crossed the ridge,” Brown said. “That tells you right there that we had very dry fuels. We’ve had winds that have basically formed within these fires that have helped push the embers ahead of fire lines.”

The community and environmental effects of the Caldor Fire are still not fully known, though the fire is large in scale, drawing comparisons to other natural disasters, like hurricanes or floods, that come with a wide range of long-lasting impacts.

In many ways, the community and environmental effects are intertwined with each other. South Lake Tahoe’s economy relies on recreation. Tourists come to ski, hike, bike, enjoy the lake and see a concert. With a warmer, drier climate, the basin was already facing threats. 

The degree to which landscapes are burned — and how the burn pattern develops — will likely dictate the management response. How will the burned areas affect runoff into a watershed that is used by Reno and other water users along the Truckee River? What types of vegetation could return to those areas? How will the fire affect the clarity of Lake Tahoe, known for its blue gaze? What does this mean for the wildlife within the local ecosystem?

Researchers can look to the Angora Fire to consider some of these questions, but the Caldor Fire is unique in its scale and its footprint within the basin. Scientists are already thinking about ways to investigate these issues. During the fire, the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center sent out a team to take measurements of water quality in the lake, CalMatters, a California-based nonprofit news outlet, reported this week.

A beach on Lake Tahoe sits empty as Mandatory Evacuations close down South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The Nevada Independent)

As the fire continues to burn, a big question remains on the minds of evacuees and officials: What does this mean for the future? For Clay Cunningham, who has lived in Lake Tahoe for more than three decades, finding an answer seems to be changing minute-by-minute.

Cunningham evacuated with his family earlier this week. For decades, he has lived in Meyers, California, just outside of South Lake Tahoe, and close to the fire line.

On Tuesday afternoon, Cunningham stood near his tent on a grassy median outside the Carson City Community Center. Up until the last couple of days, Cunningham felt that local officials had painted an overly-optimistic view of the wildfire’s path. Officials, he noted, had briefed residents that they thought it was unlikely for the fire to enter the basin.

“I lived through the Angora Fire, so we know what the possibilities are,” he said.

But Cunningham said it was different this time. The evacuation orders came suddenly. He said he was not put on an evacuation warning before he got the order to leave. He got a knock on his door, and he was told to pack up his stuff quickly, and get out of the area.

Clay Cunningham, who has lived in Lake Tahoe for more than three decades, at the Carson City Community Center on Aug. 31, 2021 after evacuating from the Caldor Fire. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

“Anybody that lives in any place for any length of time, we all start to accumulate things,” he said in an interview. “I've got all of my family memorabilia, from great grandparents and from their families, passed down. How do you pick and choose what you’re going to leave?”

The fire, at the same time, poses longer term questions about the future of a lake beloved by many. How should forest management be squared with a changing climate? What does “normal” look like? And what assumptions should be made about where fires can spread?

Goodman Collins said the fire underscores the need for the basin to continue implementing its forest health action plan. She said it’s also important that neighboring forests consider projects to manage land, as the Caldor Fire has shown that fires can enter the Tahoe basin. 

“This isn't the end,” she said. “We haven’t lost Tahoe.”

“And I think we'll be able to learn from this to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she added.

A helicopter picks up water to fight the Caldor Fire in Echo Lake, California on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The Nevada Independent)

Multimedia editor Joey Lovato contributed to this report.

Report: Extreme temperatures disproportionately affects minority, low-income communities stuck in ‘heat islands’

Amid a summer filled with record-breaking high temperatures, a new report by think tank Guinn Center warns that extreme heat is becoming an increasingly dangerous health threat that disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities in Las Vegas. 

In a forthcoming report shared with The Nevada Independent, researchers from the Guinn Center identified the Bracken, Paradise, Whitney and Winchester neighborhoods as well as parts of east, north and west Las Vegas and north Henderson as heat islands —  where roads, buildings and other infrastructure retain and remit heat at a higher rate than surrounding areas, resulting in higher concentrations of heat as compared to the rest of the city. 

“Even within a given setting, such as a city, vulnerability to heat is not equally distributed,” stated the Guinn Center report. “Uneven patterns of investment, dislocation and zoning laws have resulted in some of Nevada's communities — disproportionately minorities and people experiencing poverty— facing a state of heightened exposure and vulnerability to climate-related threats.” 

As extreme heat becomes more common across the West, it causes more deaths per year in the U.S. than other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, floods or hurricanes, the report highlighted. On average, 1,500 people die each year from heat-related issues in urban areas. In Clark County, 82 people died from heat-related causes last year. 

The threats are greater for Nevadans who live in the southern region of the state, where temperatures exceed 90 degrees nearly 100 days out of the year, according to a 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists cited by the Guinn Center. Researchers say the region could see temperatures rise to more than 100 degrees for as many as 96 days each year by the end of the century. 

A separate 2021 Regional Transportation Commission study cited in the Guinn Center report found that the populations living in areas most vulnerable to extreme heat are overwhelmingly people of color, making up 80 percent of the more than 100,000 people who live in affected urban areas. More than half identify as Latino, 17 percent as Black and 6 percent as Asian. 

Regions and populations most affected by high temperatures are also less able to mitigate exposure because of economic inequalities, health care disparities, less investment from the government and zoning laws, according to researchers. 

“Generally, residents who are not white, have low or fixed incomes, are homeless, and those in other historically disenfranchised groups are particularly at risk of heat-related illness and injury for a multitude of reasons, including lack of access to air-conditioning or transportation to cooling centers and residence in the hottest parts of cities,” the report states. 

The Guinn Center also analyzed 45 state, county and city heat-related policies adopted over the last decade that affect the Las Vegas area, many of which focused on strategies to lessen discomfort caused by temperature, as well as educating the public and investment in public health. Two statutes address air conditioning requirements for residences and six explicitly acknowledge the relationship between heat and health, but none specify whether they sought direct input from the most vulnerable communities, such as Latino and Native American community members. 

Regarding the gaps in policy addressing potentially dangerous effects of heat, researchers recommended greater efforts in educating the public about extreme heat and the dangers it poses, “weatherizing” public bus stops, expanding solar roof programs for townhomes and condominiums, creating more tree canopies, cool roofs and green street programs and more. 

Heat effects  

The high cost of using more air conditioning and a lack of cooled public spaces leave some Southern Nevada residents, especially those with health issues, with few options to escape the high temperatures. 

Of more than 50 Las Vegas residents interviewed by the Guinn Center for the report, 64 percent said they were very concerned about the risks posed by extreme heat and 63 percent said they were most likely to experience greater heat while in transit, but many also reported challenges with regulating temperature in their homes and at work. 

The majority of those surveyed reported experiencing the most heat when driving a vehicle (many reported not having automobile air conditioning) or walking their children to school or to a bus stop, many of which have no shade coverings. 

“Our pedestrian realm is just a torture chamber for people to be able to access transit,” said a Las Vegas resident. “People won't sit on the benches at a bus stop because they’ll get a second-degree burn.” 

Researchers also noted that the pandemic brought an increased number of ride-share and delivery service workers for companies like Uber, Lyft and Grubhub and who may have not had functioning air conditioning in their vehicle.

Researchers noted wait-times at bus stops during the pandemic grew longer as buses ran less frequently, forcing people to spend more time in the heat. 

Another resident expressed worry about children walking home from school during especially hot afternoons. 

“Now that our children have gone back to school, they should provide a bus to take them home rather than have them walk from school under the sun. Kids sometimes get heat stroke … That is the type of help I think the government should provide,” they said.

During a webinar last week on the report’s findings, Marco Velotta of the City of Las Vegas’s Office of Sustainability said the city’s 2050 Master Plan, adopted last month, will allow for 3,000 parcels of land throughout the city for mixed-use transit zoning, with the goal to make public transportation more accessible, and will include East Las Vegas, where the urban heat island effect is present and affects the large Latino population. 

“It’s about reimagining the stations themselves,” Velotta said, adding ideas for more shading and green walls. 

Respondents also reported seeing more costly utility bills as they used their air conditioning more frequently while being home or working remotely because of the pandemic. Others reported not being able to afford to replace or update their old or broken air conditioning systems. 

Respondents told researchers they try to escape the heat by traveling to malls, casinos, movie theaters, public parks or pools where they can cool down. 

Working in Southern Nevada also drives exposure to extreme heat for workers spending hours outdoors. 

“I worry about construction workers because my husband works in construction. He gets little blisters on his back caused by the heat. It burns his skin,” said a respondent.  

Latino and Native American people are overrepresented in the construction workforce in Las Vegas, making them particularly vulnerable to the heat outdoors during work hours. Other employees identified as vulnerable in the report include landscapers, street vendors, airport and utility workers. 

Audrey Peral, a lead organizer for Make the Road Nevada, emphasized the need to make information and messaging accessible for people who are most affected, suggesting that officials require it to be in multiple languages. 

“I myself am a college educated individual that speaks English and yet I have a hard time navigating … and figuring out resources that work for myself,” Peral said. “You can only imagine how difficult it is for someone that does not know the language, that this is maybe a new country, maybe a new space, but is being impacted by this issue at a disproportionate rate. It's really key for us to continue to meet people where they are.” 

Recommendations 

Guinn Center researchers highlighted the need to educate community members about extreme heat and its effects on a central website and including resources on Nevada 211, a Health and Human Services program designed to connect residents with needed services. They also suggested distributing information to schools and “getting flyers into backpacks.” 

Regarding heat at public transportation stops, researchers suggested including more water bottle refill stations, water misters, providing more shade coverings and using nonmetal materials to reduce the risk of burning people who want to sit on benches while they wait. 

Researchers also recommended expanding utility assistance programs to include people who don’t currently meet income or citizenship requirements. In order to make air conditioning more accessible, researchers recommend establishing programs for the replacement and repair of units in homes and cars, and suggested state leaders earmark federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to fund the effort. 

The report also recommended approval of a regulation proposed by the Department of Business and Industry that would require employers of workers exposed to high temperatures to include a program for the management of heat stress in the written safety program and to actively encourage workers to hydrate. Nevada would be the third state to adopt such a regulation, behind Washington and California. 

During the webinar, Jeff Quinn, manager of the Office of Public Health Preparedness for the Southern Nevada Health District, said it’s his office’s role to educate and inform the public through community outreach about safety and protection tips for managing the heat.  

Quinn said his office works with large employers on how to protect workers who are spending many hours outdoors, including providing sunscreen and allowing frequent rest breaks. But, ultimately, governmental agencies can only do so much, he said. 

“We as governmental agencies or as public health can't solve all the problems for you,” Quinn said. “It really requires the partnership and help of the public to do what they can to stay hydrated, to drink enough water, to monitor the activities that they do during the extreme heat part of the days, to try to look to other times of the day to take care of business and activities.” 

South Lake Tahoe casinos begin closing gaming operations as Caldor Fire intensifies

Operators of the four major casinos in South Lake Tahoe began closing portions of their gaming floors Monday after fire officials in California ordered evacuations of residents all the way up to the Nevada border in response to the fast-spreading Caldor Fire.

Gaming Control Board Audit Division Chief Kelly Colvin said in an email that many of the employees at four major properties along Highway 50 are California residents and had already left the properties “to take care of matters related to the evacuation of their homes.” 

He said some casino operators had notified the Control Board on Monday afternoon that they were shutting down certain gaming operations.

“I’d presume that this will escalate over the coming minutes (and) hours,” he said.

Two of the casinos, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe and Harveys, are operated by Caesars Entertainment. Hard Rock Lake Tahoe is operated by Las Vegas-based Paragon Gaming, and Montbleu Casino Resort is operated by Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp.

“Montbleu Resort Casino has not been evacuated and is currently housing evacuees, team members, and firefighters,” property general manager Tim Tretton said in an email provided by Bally’s. “Our hotel, casino (slots only), and a to-go restaurant are open at this time. We continue to support the community and work closely with the fire chief.”

A source at Hard Rock said the property is housing some firefighters and displaced California residents.

In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, Hard Rock Lake Tahoe officials said, “We are thankful for the many firefighters and first responders who are working tirelessly to protect our team members, our homes, family, friends and the natural resources of the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. We continue to monitor the situation and are in close contact with the local, state and federal government.” 

The business disruption comes as the Lake Tahoe resorts were gearing up for the Labor Day weekend holiday. Several properties canceled entertainment last weekend as the fire grew in California.

According to the Control Board, gaming revenues in South Lake Tahoe have increased 27 percent through July compared to the first seven months of 2019.

Caesars is dealing with closures of several casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi due to Hurricane Ida, including Harrah’s New Orleans and Harrah’s Gulf Coast in Biloxi.

In a statement, Caesars Entertainment said, “While Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe are not currently under mandatory evacuation orders, we recognize that the situation is rapidly evolving, and we are in constant contact with local officials to ensure that we are prepared.”

The company said the properties were operating “and actively supporting local emergency services, fire crews and displaced team members. The safety of our team members, guests and community is our primary concern. We will continue to work closely with local officials and emergency responders, adhering to their guidance and assisting as needed.”

Shortly before 3 p.m. Monday, Gov. Steve Sisolak declared an emergency order in Nevada in response to the Caldor Fire. Sisolak said it’s anticipated the fire will cross from California into Nevada in the coming days. The state of emergency ensures resources from the local, state, and federal levels are available to assist as needed. 

“On behalf of the State of Nevada, I would like to thank all of our brave first responders, local government agencies, and nonprofit entities who continue to go above and beyond to assist our communities during the Caldor Fire,” Sisolak said in a statement. “We will continue to use all our available resources to fight this fire and assist those in need.”  

In the declaration, Sisolak said there would be "insufficient sheltering” caused by the evacuation of more than 20,000 residents and visitors to South Lake Tahoe and the surrounding communities. He said the evacuation has overwhelmed community services, would create unsafe road conditions and has caused fuel shortages.

According to the Associated Press, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention issued evacuation orders at 10 a.m. for areas adjacent to the Nevada border.

The recommended evacuation route was Highway 50 headed east toward Nevada. Evacuation shelters are in place at the Truckee Veterans Hall in Truckee, California, and the Douglas County Community Center in Gardnerville. The fire has burned more than 175,000 acres.

Colvin said he wasn’t aware of any evacuation order issued for a Nevada community.

“My understanding is that such an order would likely originate from the governor,” he said.

Updated on 8/30/2021, at 3:42 p.m. to include additional information from the governor's declaration.

Updated on 8/30/2021 at 4:26 p.m. to include comment from Hard Rock Lake Tahoe.

Updated on 8/30/2021 at 5:15 p.m. to add statement from Caesars Entertainment.