On June 24, 2007, in the vicinity of Seneca Pond, located near North Upper Truckee Road in the Angora Lakes area at Lake Tahoe, California, unnamed persons failed to supervise an illegal campfire. The result was a wind-driven firestorm punctuated by a rapid-moving crown fire. This conflagration destroyed 254 homes, caused $140 million in property damage, and scorched 3,100 acres. The fire threatened the watershed of Lake Tahoe, and the consequences remain under investigation to this day.
In 2008, Coordinator of Photographic Research Scott Hinton and I proposed a project to present a time-based, visual study of the Angora post-fire landscape development. It was partially funded by the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), Academy for the Environment, and the work on the project continues to this day. We selected ten sites in the post-fire landscape, and digitally photographing the same vantage points over a period of now multiple years, providing investigators and the general public an opportunity to assess post-fire change and development.
It is surprising how few resources are dedicated to evaluating post-fire landscapes. The visual ramifications of fire are obviously evident, yet rephotographed post-fire landscapes are rarely presented in scientific journals or within the popular media. This proposal initiates a solution—to present a visual study of post-fire development on the Angora Lake Fire. Coincidentally, it is extremely rare for visual artists to join in the investigative process of landscape management, a domain usually reserved for quantitative scientists. This project, while modest on many levels, initiates a process of including the refined visual language of the visual arts, in this case using photography, for evaluating landscape change. The underlying premise of this secondary advantage is that art does indeed matter. In my personal experience, I know from my work conducting the project Stopping Time: A Rephotographic Survey of Lake Tahoe (1992: University of New Mexico Press) that scientists are in need of a visual baseline for future analysis. I still receive multiple requests for the use of comparative views (historical and contemporary).
Our collective point is that visual analysis of post-fire landscapes is sorely needed, and there are currently no publications dedicated to skilled, professional visual-comparative views of post-fire redevelopment in the Tahoe basin. The objective of this project is to present, for the first year, a digital database of 24 rephotographs of ten sites (240 photographs). This provides both individual photographs, and a time-based merge of each site’s rephotographs. For the second year, we moved the photography schedule to once a month, from June 2009 to June 2010. Starting June 2010 we have moved the photography schedule to every other month: June, August, October, December, February, April, June. On April 11, 2014, Scott Hinton completed the 58th survey that brings the project to 580 rephotographs. The team has been compiling additional folders of images that are not of the specific sites, but detail plants, construction, water and other changes around the Angora Fire site. This allows investigators to evaluate the photographs individually, or collectively as a time sequence.
The hypothesis is visually simple; that is, the Angora Lake Fire landscape is currently undergoing considerable change, from decisive redevelopment to passive regrowth. Documenting this evolution should provide a dramatic visual analysis useful beyond the structure of the collaboration. The visual database will be made available for reputable researchers, and for any other governmental entity, and for the media and general public, and an exhibit of panels of the photographs will be prepared.
I supervised the site selection, and the digital rephotography (GPS locators). Coordinator of Photographic Research Scott Hinton supervised the fieldwork. During the first phase of the project, two Advanced Photography students from UNR, Richie Bednarski and Kathy Gordon, were employed to assist with the field photography and phase-one project assembly. This was a great opportunity for these students to gain experience in a professional environment. During subsequent years, staff members Megan Berner and Margo Jones Duevall along with students from the Research Experience for Undergraduates program (funded in part by the National Science Foundation) participated in Angora Fire rephotography as members of our fieldwork team.
The Angora Fire Study (AFS) area covers 3,100 acres and is a mix of National Forest and private land. The visual collection points are spaced through the western portion of the Angora Fire study area. The majority of burned acreage is National Forest land, but private property, especially scorched homes, barns, and other property such as sheds and garages, accounted for the measurable financial loss.
View from Echo Peak looking east and north across the burn area in 2012.
The fire started below Angora Peak and Upper and Lower Angora Lake, burning to approximately 7,300 feet above sea level. Prevailing winds blew the fire east along Angora ridge and the north flanks of the Tahoe Paradise subdivision. The severity of the fire was exacerbated by topography, changing winds and forest condition—severely dry undergrowth, abundance of flammable material, and the proximity of housing to indefensible tree density. It is important to note that many locations in the Angora Fire landscape had been actively managed for fuel reduction, and this is evident in areas where trees survived the fire. While the winds provoked severe spreading of crown-to-crown fire, some areas were less impacted due to prior fuel reduction.
The forest composition of the Angora Fire Study area is a mixed conifer forest composed of white fir, Jeffery pine, incense cedar, California red fir, sugar pine, lodgepole pine, quaking aspen, western white pine and Mountain hemlock. The history of human/forest interaction within the Lake Tahoe Basin differs from most of the Sierra Nevada due to the heavy lumber needs of the Virginia City mines. Historical documents reveal that the entire Lake Tahoe Basin was logged and the current forest composition is largely a mixture of second and third growth trees. This is critical to the restoration of the post-fire landscape of the Angora Fire. In the late 1890s, George Gruell states in Fire in the Sierra Nevada that a fire burned up the Angora Ridge, and photographs from 1925 and 1929 document the brush revegetation of the slopes above Fallen Leaf Lake and the hillsides above Seneca Pond to the fire lookout. Heavy logging and the suppression of fires in this landscape have increased forest densities, creating hotter fires that remove the nutrients from the soil due to the severe heat. The combination of ladder fuels along with high-density housing on the edge of forestlands caused the severity of the Angora fire.
Two photographs stitched together into a panorama make up this view looking south and west from Angora Lakes Road at the fire lookout. The right side of the image contains the origins of the fire near Seneca Pond. It is possible to pick out the lush area of green surrounding the pond. Angora Creek and many of the tributaries flow around this area, creating a documented higher water table. Throughout the year, timber removal and windfall have changed the immediate tree infrastructure. The terrain below Angora Ridge is composed primarily of fir and lodgepole pine. While both species of conifers are fire resistant, both grow in thicker stands that typically burn in whole stand fires. Jeffery pine, located in the lower elevations of the Angora Fire, tends to burn in more frequent low-intensity fires.
Angora Lakes Road provided an access point to contain the fire. Fuel reduction below the ridge also helped to minimize a catastrophic full-crown fire across the entire ridge. On the left section of the photograph, stands of trees remain intact after the fire, even as wind and topography provoked high fire intensities. Between September 2009 and October 2009, two dead trees fell during heavy winds as the first major storm moved into the area. The frequency of photographs provides critical data to the changes and when these changes occur during the first year of study.
It was critical to include Seneca Pond for two reasons. First is proximity to the start of the fire, and second to document this important riparian habitat. Seneca Pond is now an oasis surrounded by the burn area. Today, active tree removal is clearing the forest of deadfall and also preparing the area for revegetation. To the west, stumps have been left but shredded to help with decomposition. Topography near the pond is more level but elevation change is abrupt to the west and north. The foreground image area has maintained a more uniform prefire habitat, while the background ridge contains visual data to forest composition change. The mixed conifer forest around the pond contains thick stands of Jeffery pine, lodgepole pine and white fir.
The human/wild-land interface of the Tahoe Paradise subdivision is a complex mosaic of residential housing and forestland. On the other side of the street from AFS Point C is a thick stand of lodgepole pine marked with a National Forest Service land boundary. The fire moved through this section of forest with less severity and was mainly a ground fire; d embers and the flammable housing materials created intense fires igniting the houses on the boundary of the subdivision. Subsequent studies of this fire region indicate that housing structures caused high-risk fire zones, leading to increased fire severity. AFS Point C documents the rebuilding of the houses and three surviving conifer trees in the immediate foreground. The lot where AFS Point D is located has not been rebuilt while the houses in the nearby lots have been.
Site D Notes
Tree loss is minimal over the four years. The trees that immediately surrounded the residence burned during the fire and were removed, the trees that remained did not suffer from the crown fire. The fire was intense but fuel ladders and fire defense saved a stand of Jeffery pines. Roughly 60 trees were lost at this site. Ground cover is on a steady increase, including mountain whitethorn, grasses and Jeffery pine seedlings. There has not been any construction to the lot at Site D and a marker indicates that the property is now under the ownership of the California Tahoe Conservancy.
Interviews with firefighters and eyewitnesses as well as video examination indicate that many houses ignited from burning embers produced by house fires upwind. A cycle of spotting from house to house in this area ended only when the fire ran into a buffer of trees with reduced house density to the northeast of Mt. Shasta Circle.
Setting data-collection points in Tahoe Paradise subdivision is critical to the short-term study of landscape revegetation and also to long-term landscape development. The effects of the fire were severe, as embers ignited houses in this area. AFS Point E reveals rebuilt houses, but the camera location is on a parcel that has not seen any construction. While many of the houses are being rebuilt, some land is being transferred to the California Tahoe Conservancy.
AFS Point F has not been rebuilt. On the first day of data collection, the landowner was watering the wildflowers and grasses and was trying to decide if he would rebuild. The property to the right of AFS Point F also indicates National Forest boundary markers. Trees surrounding a house in the right portion of the photograph reveal how fortunate some were as the fire moved through the area of Mt. Diablo Circle.
Site E Notes
There has not been any rebuilding at Site E. Different vehicles are parked for extended periods of time at the driveway to Site E. Some site work has occurred at Site E, most notably the placement of a partial tree trunk. Mountain whitethorn continues to increase as a ground-cover brush. There has been steady growth by an aspen tree near the center of the photograph. Growth was slowed due to a below-average snow pack in 2012.
Site F Notes
There has not been any rebuilding at Site F. There has been a steady loss of dead trees over the past four years. Many of the trees near the residence have either fallen or been removed. The tight grouping of the lodgepole pine provided unique shapes when surrounding trees fell. Active planting of wildflower seed had steadily increased over the first four years, with exception to the bottom left area that still remains void of substantial plant vegetation. Site F is unique due to the pronounced foreground, middle ground and background. The view of the ridge beyond Site F provides visual evidence to the active management of the post-fire landscape. In the middle of the photograph, the land has been cleared of dead tees.
This view is looking west and north toward Angora Peak just above the riparian area of Angora Creek. The trees had already been cut in the foreground prior to the start of the project (Spring 2009). The hydro seeding from the previous year was successful with the open land filled with blue flax. The stumps in the foreground of the photographs from 2008 indicate the size of trees that made up the forest prior to the Angora fire. A close spacing of trees that were 50 to 100 years old allowed the fire to move up the ridge as the fire moved east on the south flank of Tahoe Mountain. Timber removal has begun in the middle ground of the photograph.
The standing trees are an example of most of the forests of the Sierra Nevada region. Tight clusters of trees offer ample ladder fuel for fire expansion. Mountainous terrain adds to the volatility with dynamic transitions in fire patterns. Research by Dr. Alan Taylor, University of Pennsylvania Department of Geography (Taylor et al. 2000), suggests that both forest types (Jeffery pine forest/lodgepole pine, Fir forest) would have occurred naturally prior to early settlement in the Tahoe Basin, but were separated by elevation at roughly the 8,000-foot contour. Above 8,000 feet, low temperatures and high-moisture conditions would have only infrequently allowed ignitions to grow into large fires. Below 8,000 feet, in warmer, drier areas, frequent ignitions would have occurred and resulted in relatively lower fire intensity.
AFS Point G documents changes in forest composition, post-fire. How this forest is managed will help determine the likeliness and severity of fires in the future. If managed similar to the past 100 years, a thick forest composed of white and red fir along with lodgepole pine will regrow and allow for the thick fuel loads that have already proven catastrophic to the human/wild-land interface.
Post-fire landscapes are highly susceptible to water runoff and erosion. Both AFS Point H and I demonstrate landscapes that are in this transition zone. Many efforts have been enacted to help stabilize the hillside above AFS Point I, including but not limited to hydro seeding, netting and water diversion. The intensity of the fire along the ridge engulfed nearly the entire forest above AFS Point I, leaving little protection against heavy water runoff. AFS Point H documents the construction to divert the water into a channel that leads into Angora Creek. Both locations are important rephotographic sites as they offer evidence of how water runoff is managed.
Site I Notes
One of the most radical reconstructions in the study. A substantial amount of earth was moved for the rebuilding of the house. Water has continued to cause challenges due to the upland slopes’ lack of vegetation. Wattles (round straw barriers) were placed along the hillside in an effort to manage the water flow, but the house continued to have issues with water from the upland slopes. The above-average winter of 2010-2011 had water running out of the garage and ponding in the driveway. Starting at the end of 2011, substantial work was done to divert the water around the house. Current observation would prove the work was a success. No trees survived the fire in Site I. There is a continued change in the number of dead trees that are still standing. Between October 2010 and October 2011, there was a substantial amount of trees that either fell or were removed.
This point is the eastern boundary of our study area. The Angora Fire continued to burn to the east over the southern edge of Tahoe Mountain and almost to Camp Richardson. Tree removal in this area was active near the road (stands of trees were predominant, left). Noxious weeds and brush have grown from a sporadic mix about a foot high the first year to a thick covering averaging three feet high during Summer 2009. At the end of Summer 2009, seedlings had been planted in the area. These seedlings are pines and Incense Cedar. These seedlings have been documented photographically as the forest around Site J continues to evolve post-fire.
Site J Notes
Between October 2009 and October 2010 there was removal of some of the vegetation and planting of seedlings. Many of the seedlings have started to become established. Mountain whitethorn and other brushes have become established in the site. Site I and Site A contains visual data useful for establishing tree-fall rates over time. For Site I, many of the younger trees fell in the first year leaving the more mature deadwood. In the third year of the study, more of the mature deadwood began to fall.
This type of project is a cornerstone of my teaching and research. I commonly work with disciplines from history to geography to urban studies to landscape architecture. I want students to understand that the Fine Arts is not an isolated, rarified field considered nonessential by the general public, but instead a vital field of study employing a complex visual language ideally suited for interdisciplinary collaboration. The benefits to the greater northern Nevada community, including Lake Tahoe, are rooted in historical documentation and public education. Collectively, the community should see what is happening in post-fire development, and the results of this study will be available for the media online via published articles and dedicated Websites. The visual baseline offers an opportunity for future rephotography, providing the groundwork for greater analysis and more significant funding.
Peter Goin is a Foundation Professor of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno, and is the author of numerous books focusing on the managed landscapes of the Great Basin and beyond.
Scott Hinton is Coordinator of Photographic Research at the University of Nevada, Reno who’s projects and studies examine the human landscape of the western United States.