Black Jeffreys and masticated slash

A few trees, charcoal black, dead, reach into the blue sky above this South Lake Tahoe neighborhood (former neighborhood?) near Angora Creek. Houses are gone. Driveways and staircases lead to vacant lots.

Most of the trees on a nearby 30-acre stretch, dead since the Angora fire in June, were salvaged for lumber. Those that remain—charred logs on the ground. Only a few are left standing as “wildlife trees,” possible homes for critters.

Gwen Rosser, a retired chemistry teacher from Tahoe Vista, works to partially bury a log on the now-barren slope. By digging trenches for logs and placing them strategically into the hillside, volunteers hope to hold the ashy soil in place.

Rosser wedges large branches and wood chips around the log.

“This is very large debris,” she says. “It’s hard to shuffle around.”

She looks out over the fire-scarred landscape.

“It was devastating.”

Masticated slash from the pines—mostly Jeffrey—lines the floor of the former forest.

Armed with rakes, shovels and dust masks, volunteers work in what Mike Branch, professor, head of the UNR English graduate program, calls “a mature Jeff pine forest reduced to nothing but ash and immense, blackened snags.”

“I’ve seen fire damage before,” Branch says, leaning on a rake. “But I’ve never seen anything like this. Apocalyptic.”

It’s Tahoe Stewardship Day, Sept. 30, a 10-year tradition. Branch brings volunteers from Reno. About 300 volunteers show up, from several environmental groups like the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club.

Last year, volunteers worked on the north shore, cutting ladder fuels and building trails in a green, pine-scented forest.

This year, raking wood chips near Mule Deer Circle, gusts of wind kick up dirt and ash on this parcel owned by the Tahoe Land Conservancy. Nearby, on U.S. Forest Service land, dead trees still stand.

Fires are a natural, healthful event for a forest left to its own devices. For more than a century, Tahoe has not been a forest left to itself.

It’s often called a tinderbox. On June 24, a match was struck. Some 3,100 acres burned, 254 homes and 75 commercial structures destroyed.

On Stewardship Day, we spend a morning above empty lots, spreading mulch and digging trenches to set contour logs. This will keep some of the hill from washing into Angora Creek, and thus into Lake Tahoe. Once the ground is covered with an inch or so of mulch, we broadcast native seed over the area. Yarrow and lupine. Wildflowers.

At the bottom of the hill, I see a man looking out over the edge of a driveway—in a now-vacant lot that used to be someone’s home. Jeff Cowen, community liaison for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, can’t help but be moved by the neatly landscaped slopes and what remains of several flower planters. A solitary lamp post remains in front of the empty lot. The backyard features a bird bath and what looks like a retaining wall—cement blocks hold the hill in place.

“My God, how sad,” Cowen says of the scene.

Cowen says the fire opened up a conversation that would not have happened earlier.

“People are taking action now, more than they would have,” Cowen says. “They’re studying the rules we have instead of listening to their neighbors. They’re coming to the TRPA and asking, ‘What do we do to create defensible space?'”

A patch of green catches my eye from under one blackened tree.

Daylin Wade, 25, assistant to Conservancy’s Forest Habitat Enhancement Program, is distributing flats of seedling trees and bushes for volunteers to plant and water. Incense cedar, manzanita and Jeffrey pines.

“We’re giving the ecosystem a bit of a jump start,” she says. “But nobody should think this is going to be a quick restoration process. It was an intense fire.”