Surrounded by fires, parched by drought, and shut down by the pandemic – residents of California’s scenic South Lake Tahoe thought they’d endured everything.
That was until this week, when the US Forest Service announced it was closing several popular sites after discovering bubonic plague in the chipmunk population.
The federal agency announced this week that “based on positive plague tests” in the rodent population around hiking areas, it would close the well-trafficked Taylor Creek Visitor Center and nearby Kiva Beach through Friday.
The closure includes some of the region’s most spectacular hiking spots, which meander through forested glades speckled with wildflowers and along a creek that leads to Lake Tahoe’s shore.
According to the forest service, plague can be spread by “squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents”, specifically by fleas that come in contact with infected animals and go on to bite humans.
As frightening as it sounds, plague in rodents at higher elevations is apparently not that rare, and a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service said spread to humans was easily preventable with a few precautions.
“Bubonic plague is naturally occurring in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and this region,” said Lisa Herron, a public affairs specialist for the agency’s Lake Tahoe basin management unit, which runs the closed facilities.
“It’s something that visitors need to take precautions about, but it’s not something that they need to worry about.”
She said keeping pets at home, or at least on leash and away from rodent burrows, was one important strategy. But visitors should also stay away from chipmunks and squirrels and report any that are acting strange or lethargic to rangers.
The federal agency’s announcement on Facebook said “vector control” workers would complete “eradication treatments” in the area on Thursday in hopes of reopening the sites and the surrounding hiking areas by Friday.
Herron said this week’s abatement efforts would not target the chipmunk populations themselves – but instead would try to wipe out their fleas.
Herron said the real danger of getting bubonic plague comes from the fleas that carry the disease. Regional authorities conduct regular tests, in which they trap the rodents, anesthetize them, comb them for fleas and then test the fleas for plague, she said. Once plague is detected, animal control workers will give the area the forest equivalent of a flea bath.
“What happens next is that the El Dorado county vector control will be dusting the burrows with a powder,” she said.
Then there will be another round of trapping and testing and hopefully the visitor sites, which can draw several thousand visitors a day during the busy summer season, can be opened by this weekend, she said.
But plague in humans has been extremely rare in the area. Last year an avid walker from the South Lake Tahoe region tested positive, becoming the first case in five years, according to a story in the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Herron said if caught in time, plague in humans was now actually very treatable. Symptoms to watch for include sudden fever and chills, headache and muscle aches.
Local readers of the announcement seemed to take the closures in stride.
“Drought, plague, fires, and earthquakes. Just another week in California,” said one poster, responding to the forest service’s announcement on Facebook.
Others mused that it seems ironic that, at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic seems destined to run on for two years, the bubonic plague can now be wiped out in four days.
“Chipmunks and squirrels have had the plague for decades around the lake, nothing new,” said another Facebook user, responding to the latest story in the Tahoe Daily Tribune. “Just tell them to stay home and wear a mask.”