Officials look at prescribed burn effects
June 3, 2010
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A recent prescribed burn at Slaughterhouse Canyon that emitted billows of smoke visible for days at Lake Tahoe has also ignited a debate about pile burning’s potential negative impacts to basin air quality.
Carson City Supervisor and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board member Shelley Aldean said she would like to see TRPA have oversight powers regarding basin-wide pile burning.
She also voiced concerns over if prescribed burning could have a negative impact on air quality and lake clarity.
“The TRPA has restrictions on wood-burning stoves to reduce the production of particulate matter, (which compromises lake clarity),” she said. “Yet, the agency has no restrictions on pile burning, when that is a far greater contributor of particulate matter.”
Jeff Cowen, spokesman for the TRPA, said woodstove regulations were instituted because a replacement system, which incorporates clean burning technology, was feasible.
“There is the potential of 44,000 woodstoves burning throughout nine months of the year and it’s feasible to regulate those stoves due to the emergence of technology,” Cowen said.
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Alternatives to pile burning such as mastication, chipping and removal exist, but present logistical difficulties and significant costs, according to Cowen.
Furthermore, two state agencies – the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the California Air Resources Board – already have regulations regarding pile burning in place. Pile burning can only occur in certain months and burn days are regulated by other air quality agencies, Cowen said.
The TRPA defers to the two state agencies regarding the regulation of pile burning.
Mike Gayer, a 30-year resident of Zephyr Heights, believes viable and ready alternatives to pile burning do exist and he would like to see them used more frequently.
Gayer said fire agencies should explore alternative methods of reducing hazardous materials, including transporting the wood out of the basin to nearby biomass plants.
“My frustration with the (local fire agencies) is they only want to burn on-site instead of trying to work toward trucking the fuel to biomass plants,” he said.
However, the region’s diverse landscape, including many areas with steep slopes that lack access by road, precludes transportation of the fuels out of the area, said Cheva Heck, spokeswoman for the forest service.
The construction of new permanent roads, in some cases, is not in concert with the TRPA’s environmental mission, Cowen said.
Gayer said he understands some pile burning is necessary, and is supportive of the procedure as a method of preventing catastrophic wildland fires. But he also believes agencies could do more to deal with piles that are not on steep slopes and are accessible by roads.
“I’ve seen them burn piles on flat ground and right next to the road,” he said. “I support the philosophy of using pile burning to prevent forest fires, but if there is a different way to do it that means less air pollution, well, let’s look into that too.”
A biomass plant, built in Carson City and designed to provide electricity to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, will be shut down, leased or sold by the end of the summer due to financial constraints, because the plant is unable to procure enough wood to fuel the operation.
Forest service officials said it could provide enough wood, but the costs of transporting the materials out of the basin are prohibitive.
Heck cited an example of a project the Forest Service partially subsidized to remove piles accessible from the road in a previously treated area on the West Shore, in a cooperative project with Placer County. The Forest Service paid $350 of the $2,600 per acre cost for the project to remove the piles. The $2,600 per acre was only the cost to access, chip and remove the piles.
The value of the biomass removed through this contract was estimated at 10 percent of the cost to remove and deliver it, Heck said.
The science regarding from where and how particulate matter is derived still needs to be refined, according to Shane Romsos, TRPA science, monitoring and evaluation program manager.
“A number of studies are underway that are designed to improve our understanding of the effects of particulate matter on water and air quality,” said Romsos.
Romsos further said that smoke is not the only manufacturer of particulate matter, as natural elements such as dust and industrial elements such as road sediments contribute to particulate matter levels.
Technological innovations, which may help reduce pile burning in the future, continue to emerge and the TRPA is continually keeping abreast of such developments, according to Cowen.
However, Romsos said some degree of pile burning will always be a part land management in the basin.
“Fire has always played a natural role in the ecology of the basin,” said Romsos. “Total elimination of fire does not serve the best interests of the health of forest in the Sierra Nevadas.”