Opinion | Fire, Then Ice: Are the Mountains Around My California Town Going to Collapse?

Since I had to leave home a few days ago, my husband has been sleeping on the living room couch, under the strongest support beams in the house. Our roof has seen more than 40 feet of snow since November, and we’re not confident it can handle yet another storm. Already, meltwater behind an ice dam on the roof is leaking into our bedroom.

In the past week, as our town of South Lake Tahoe has absorbed rain from two more atmospheric rivers after 54 snow days this season, a gas station awning gave way, and gas pumps caught on fire. A house exploded because a propane tank’s pressure regulator vents were buried under snow. An apartment building collapsed, displacing its residents, and one family narrowly escaped a falling ceiling. Their little dog was crushed

In the summer and fall, we breathe hazardous smoke and watch the fire maps, fretting that our homes will be devoured by flames; now we refresh weather apps on our phones, cringing at the precipitation forecasts and picturing our houses destroyed by ice. I used to count on winter as the season I could stop worrying and relax. But this winter, that’s impossible. The storms are coming in more frequently, and in some cases warmer and wetter than in the past, leading to catastrophic flooding, wet-snow avalanches and brutally heavy loads on our roofs.

The succession of storms this year is especially worrisome because they’re inundating a landscape that’s already compromised. Wildfire scars on the mountains mean the possibility of avalanches and landslides is far higher and, with them, road closures, evacuations and shelter-in-place orders.

These extreme weather catastrophes used to be isolated events or were sprinkled throughout a season. But now that they’re our constant companion, we are all going to have to adjust to a new reality and figure out better ways to help one another.

The natural beauty that drew me to the Lake Tahoe area also lures thousands of tourists, many of them unprepared for our unique mountain environment. I live on a steep hill, and in the winter, the street narrows into one lane. Many of our visitors are not aware of the dangers of winter driving, and when their rental cars get stuck in the snow, they abandon them. Stranded cars mean the county snowplows can’t get through for days. I worry about what will happen if one of my elderly neighbors has a health crisis and needs an ambulance.

Mountain communities tend to attract a certain kind of person: those who own climbing equipment, seek outdoor adventures and understand the risks. One friend told me water was pouring into her bedroom at 3 a.m., so her husband grabbed his ice-climbing equipment and a headlamp, tied into his harness, scaled the house and cleared an ice dam on their roof. We know there are times we must wear skis or snowshoes to leave our driveways because no one is coming to plow the road for days, much less the driveway. We help dig one another out, and we make the best of it when we’re snowed in without electricity and internet service. Sometimes we can’t get out at all; other times we can’t get back home.

Two summers ago, my town was evacuated for the Caldor fire, which burned nearly 222,000 acres. Our homes in South Lake Tahoe were saved by shifting winds, heroic firefighters and luck. A bulldozer line runs along my street, and blackened trees, lately blanketed by snow, are visible from my writing desk. The loss I feel for this traumatized landscape, for what once was, is profound.

After multiple trip cancellations, I found a window between storms last week to travel to Seattle for a writing conference. Now I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it home because our treeless mountainside, weakened by fire, will erode and buckle, taking out the highway. In other parts of California, thousands have been forced to flee their homes as the 11th atmospheric river storm since December floods already saturated land.

Because of where I live, I cannot disconnect the notion of home from the natural world; in a very real way, this winter has buried us in the existential threat of climate change. I describe my feelings as climate anxiety. Really, it’s a mix of grief, anger and guilt.

My husband has been spending his days shoveling snow, filling sandbags and trying to divert the water flooding our garage. He has thrown snowmelt onto our roof, hoping to decrease the load. He’s helping our 80-year-old neighbor clear her walkways. I’m hoping the roads stay open and I can make it home. On the phone, I told him, “I feel like I should be there with you at home. I hope the mountain doesn’t come down and I can get there.”

Surviving the Caldor fire strengthened our community, and we’ll need the same resilience to get through whatever the changing climate asks of us next. When I arrive home, I’ll toast the snowplow operators. They has visited the road countless times this season, and I expect to see them again soon.

Suzanne Roberts is a writer and teacher in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Her latest book is “Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties.”

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