U.S. Army Spc. Raymundo Morales, left, and Staff Sgt. Jesus Valencia, second from left, both from the California Army National Guard’s 270th Military Police Company, work a traffic control point along U.S. Route 50 at the intersection where South Lake Tahoe, California, meets Stateline, Nevada, Sept. 1, 2021, as the Caldor Fire encroaches on the evacuated area. Cal Guard activated 150 military police Aug. 30 to support the California Highway Patrol with checkpoints at hard closures while the area is evacuated. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Crystal Housman)- image: California National Guard, CC by 2.0

It’s a scary question everyone in the Tahoe Sierra is asking. As the fires rage, we sit in traffic under smoke-filled skies and ask ourselves: Could I get out?

Would-be developers like Alterra Mountain Company have a short, terrifying answer: No.

In the big alpine cul-de-sac formerly known as Squaw Valley, Alterra proposes to remake Tahoe with a series of highrises, a roller coaster, and a massive indoor waterpark. It’s a classic example of too much development and not enough infrastructure.

There’s only one way out. And, if Alterra’s development were built, it would take an estimated 10 hours and 40 minutes just to travel three miles out of the valley—and onto two-lane Highway 89, already at gridlock on crowded summer days.

With no viable plan for evacuation, Alterra tells us that they’d build “a safer place to shelter in place.” That, when wildfire comes, residents and visitors could just wait it out on the golf course. 

But shelter in place is not a viable strategy for public safety; it’s a stark admission that there is no way out.

One Squaw local told me, “My plan is to put my two cats in a backpack, zip them closed, get on my bicycle, and get on the bike trail and head for Lake Tahoe.” Which, sadly, is not much better than what we hear from planning officials.

For example: at a public hearing on the proposed Squaw Valley project, a Placer County official was asked about evacuations. “It’s gonna get done,” he promised from the podium. “I’m not saying it’s gonna get done absolutely perfectly with no, you know, little hiccups. But the bottom line is I think it’s gonna get done.”

For communities recently ravaged by wildfire, those kinds of vague promises already went up in flames.

They also failed to pass legal muster. Sierra Watch challenged Placer County’s approvals in court, arguing that, among other fatal flaws, the County failed to adequately assess the development’s impacts on evacuations. The court, in a decision released in August, agreed.

Alas Alterra still seems hell-bent on pushing its reckless development, on gambling on wildfire—the wager is our safety, but the jackpot would be all theirs. All the while, putting us in a terrifying traffic jam where “little hiccups” could be fatal.

That’s not planning for disaster, it’s planning a disaster.

Tahoe deserves better.

Tom Mooers is the Executive Director of Sierra Watch. He has worked as an advocate for conservation in California for more than 25 years, building a remarkable track record of land preservation in places like Martis Valley, Donner Summit, and Lake Tahoe. Before joining Sierra Watch as founding Executive Director in 2001, he worked as Field Director for Greenbelt Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area and as Assistant Executive Director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. He and his adventurous family of six live beneath the Buttes in Sierra City, California.

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.