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After The Fire, Burning Questions Remain On Health Of Lake Tahoe

Smoke shrouds Lake Tahoe during the peak of the Caldor Fire early this month.
Associated Press

Smoke shrouds Lake Tahoe during the peak of the Caldor Fire early this month.

The Caldor Fire, one of the largest wildfires in California history, has been burning in the Lake Tahoe area since late August, scorching more than 200,000 acres.

The flames are about 75% contained, and people are making their way back to homes and businesses as more roads open up, including Highway 50 on Tuesday.

But the impact of the fire could be felt on Lake Tahoe’s environment and wildlife for a long time.

Scientists and activists have worked for decades to keep Tahoe’s famous blue waters clear. Now, there’s concern that falling ash may cloud the water and cause more environmental problems.

The lake’s “not as blue as we're used to seeing,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “There's ash on the beach, and we're seeing a few things floating around, and the measurements for Lake clarity are lower than we typically find this year as well.”

Even as firefighters deal with hotspots near the lake, Patterson said researchers are already pondering the toll the fire and ash took on Tahoe’s health.

“How long will the smoke and ash stay in the lake? Is it a long-term effect or a short-term effect? wondered Patterson. “How will the ash and smoke affect algae growth and foodweb dynamics and the lake which could last a lot longer than just the ash itself?”

He said one area of concern is a potential algae bloom fed by ash that fell into the lake.

“The smoke actually blocks UV light, which would normally kill algae in the shallow waters,” Patterson told State of Nevada. “So you might see more algae growing in the shallow areas of Tahoe that we're not used to.”

He said the current challenges highlight the ongoing effort to preserve the lake amid hotter, dryer summers and increased fire risks.

“Climate change has really elevated that risk. And we need to open our eyes and use this as a wake-up call to really advance our efforts to keep Tahoe blue,” Patterson said. “Tahoe is too important for it to be a losing battle.”

The Caldor Fire also affected area wildlife by destroying habitat and food supplies, according to an animal rescue official.

“Fortunately, it isn't like a lot of people think, that we're taking in hundreds of burned animals,” said Denise Upton, animal care director for Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, which treats and releases orphaned and injured wildlife.

“It’s after the fire. They kind of come out into neighborhoods, the ones that make it are the ones that don't get away, and those are the ones that we end up helping,” she said, adding the group has been tending to singed porcupines and there have been reports of bear families being separated in the smoke.

The care center needed to evacuate in early September along with thousands of Tahoe-area residents when flames drew close to the lake.

“When we decided it was time to go, we had practiced and we had about 42 animals, raccoons, coyotes, our educational ambassadors,” Upton said. “People were sitting four and five hours, and with animals was hot in a crate. It's just no good for them.”

The animals were taken to a variety of veterinary and rescue facilities in Northern California.

“We spent a couple of days driving around delivering animals to these great places that offered their help,” Upton told State of Nevada.

Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer, League to Save Lake Tahoe;  Denise Upton, animal care director, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care

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Kristen Kidman is a former senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.