A block party of the conservation kind | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A block party of the conservation kind

Burning coals and burning houses are two parts of a barbecue designed to raise awareness of fire safety measures in the Lake Tahoe Basin this weekend. The “Conservation Block Party” will conclude with demonstration fires on parts of a model home. “We need to have people understand what will actually burn down your house,” said John Pickett. “That is what this demonstration will show. It’s going to be great.” Details of a home, such as screens over attic vents, are often the barriers that will prevent it from burning during a forest fire, according to Pickett. In addition to a guided walking tour highlighting the defensible space and best management practices utilized by nearby homes, information on a streamlined permitting process for California residents will also be available. “It’s easy; it’s painless; we’re not going to clear cut your property,” said Pickett. Three fire protection districts on the California side of the basin have been recently granted memoranda of understanding from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. These memorandums allow the districts to issue tree removal permits for defensible space projects, making the process more efficient and cost effective, according to Pickett. “We really encourage people to come out and find out how easy it is to get this work done now,” Pickett said. A free barbecue will take place between the walking tour and burn demonstration. Parking will be limited, and the event’s sponsors urge carpooling. Conservation Block Party When: Saturday, June 2 Guided Walking Tour: 10:30 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. Free barbecue lunch: 11:40 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. Live Burn Demo: 12:15 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Where: Boulder Mountain Drive, across from Lake Valley Fire Station No. 5 Registration is encouraged for the event. Call the Tahoe Resource Conservation District at (530) 543-1501 ext. 113 to RSVP.

Which invasive weed threats exist? Find out Friday in the SouthShore

A self-guided tour in South Lake Tahoe this week will offer a look at the threat invasive plants pose to the Lake Tahoe Basin, including several species recently identified by U.S. Forest Service scientists as poised for rapid spread after the Angora fire. “Burned areas provide opportunities for invasive plants to establish quickly because of disturbed soil, release of nutrients, and lack of competition,” according to the forest service’s Burned Area Emergency Response report. One station will host a presentation on the early detection of invasives, while four other stations on the tour will focus on specific plants, like Scotch broom. Because of the invasive ornamental plant’s volatile oils, it can create a fire hazard, but is still widely available at nurseries outside the basin. “Scotch broom is really a flammable plant that could pose a high risk in the future,” said Jenny Francis, backyard conservation resource planner for the Tahoe Resource Conservation District. “We’d like to let people know what to look for.” Talks will start at all five stations promptly at 9 a.m., 9:45 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and noon. Each talk will be repeated at each station five times during the morning, beginning at the appointed times. Tour participants will be given directions to each site and can visit all or part of the presentations in any order. Those interested in carpooling should meet at 8:30 a.m. at the Tahoe Resource Conservation District Office at 870 Emerald Bay Road. Registration for the tour is free and can be completed on-line at http://ucanr.org/lake-tahoe-weed-tour-form or by calling the Invasive Weed Hotline at the Tahoe Resource Conservation District (530) 543-1501 ext.113. Registrants will receive a confirmation, including directions to the tour stations.

Seedlings to be given away today

The Tahoe Resource Conservation District and the University of California Cooperative Extension will hold a native Jeffrey pine seedling giveaway from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Lake Tahoe Demonstration Garden at Lake Tahoe Community College, One College Drive, South Lake Tahoe. Home-landscaping guides, “Living With Fire” guides, packets of wildflower seeds and free landscaping materials from Tahoe Sand and Gravel also are among the giveaways at the event. The U.S. Forest Service has donated 850 seedlings to give away to homeowners affected by the Angora fire. If your property was affected by the Angora fire, you also can sign up to receive up to $500 of native vegetation and receive $1 per square foot for planting water-efficient landscaping. For more information on the plant giveaway and vegetation plans, contact the Tahoe Resource Conservation District hotline at (530) 543-1501, ext. 113, or Susie Kocher at (530) 542-2571.

From Angora fire to those fires in Idaho and Montana, Western wildfires are more fierce

Fueled by drought and development, wildfires in the West are getting bigger and more aggressive, creating conditions so dangerous that fire bosses are increasingly reluctant to risk lives saving houses — particularly if the owners have done nothing to protect their property. From Southern California to Montana, seven firefighters have died this year battling blazes that have destroyed more than 400 houses — 254 at the South Shore of Lake Tahoe — a dramatic increase from last year. The firefighters’ job has been made more hazardous by an onslaught of houses and vacation cabins being built across the rugged West — some of them inside national forests. An estimated 8.6 million houses have been built within 30 miles of a national forest since 1982. “There’s the frustration of knowing these people aren’t taking care of their home, and why do we have to do it?” said John Watson, a Fairfield, Mont., firefighting contractor who uses a 750-gallon fire engine to protect remote houses. “I’ve asked them, ‘Do you understand the danger?’ There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be done to mitigate the threat, but they won’t do it. They say: ‘I’d rather have my cabin burn down with the trees than have you cut some down.”‘ Fire commanders say they are more likely to walk away from houses without a buffer zone, which can be as simple as raking debris from around a house and leaving a bed of gravel at the foundation, or putting metal roofs on their homes instead of flammable wood shakes. Until recently, firefighters “saluted and went out and did it,” said Don Smurthwaite, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman and former firefighter. Now, “we will not ask a fire crew in a dangerous fire to defend a structure that has not taken precautionary steps. That’s definitely a change.” Wildfires have always naturally swept the landscape, but scientists say they are becoming more catastrophic. There is little dispute that the wildfires are being fueled by a hotter weather, a yearslong drought, the spread of weeds that burn like oily rags and the buildup of forest debris from decades in which fires were routinely suppressed. “We at least seem to be having larger and more intense fires,” said U.S. Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen in Missoula, Mont. So far this year, wildfires have consumed 8.2 million acres nationwide, an area larger than Maryland, and most of it in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That figure is fast approaching last year’s record of 9.9 million acres, and the fire season can last through November in many parts of the West, particularly in fire-prone Southern California. On the South Shore, 3,072 acres burned in the Angora fire, which was started by an illegal campfire on June 24. Damages surrounding the fire remain at around $160 million. Since then a bi-state commission headed by the governors of California and Nevada has been formed and will make recommendations early next year to combat wildfires in the environmentally sensitive and highly regulated Lake Tahoe Basin. By Sept. 26, wildfires had destroyed 409 houses across the West, more than 11Ú2 times last year’s total of 263, federal statistics show. California, as usual, has the biggest toll, with 338 houses burned so far this year. From the West Coast to a few Plains states, 26 million houses – 40 percent of the housing stock – are in forests or perched on the edge of flammable wildlands, according to Volker C. Radeloff, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “There’s more at stake,” Radeloff said. “Everybody loves to live close to the wildlands and the houses are getting dispersed, making them harder to defend.” From his deck, Chris Horton was enjoying the national forest view on a Sunday in June at Tahoe’s South Shore when he picked up reports of a wildfire over a police scanner. His wife, Joyce, heard the roar of the wind-whipped fire over a nearby ridge. When the flames came into view, they had 15 minutes to escape before fire engulfed their house and leveled 253 others, leaving only chimneys standing. The Hortons regard wildfires as a small risk to pay for the beautiful summers and the fun winters, with hiking, rock climbing, boating and skiing. “It’s always in the back of your mind, like hurricanes are for other people,” said Joyce Horton, a hospital receptionist, who with her husband, a postal clerk, plans to rebuild with insurance money. Wildfires have killed 113 firefighters in the U.S. over the past five years, including seven this year as of mid-September, according to government figures. Heart attacks and vehicle and aircraft crashes are the leading causes of death. The past five years logged 11 “burnover” and fire-entrapments deaths, according to a database maintained by the National Interagency Coordination Center. Firefighter deaths over the past decade are averaging around 18 a year, up from 6.6 during the 1930s, according to Forest Service statistics. Last year’s death toll was two dozen, double the number in 2005. Five firefighters died last October trying to defend a half-built mountain house in the foothills near Banning, Calif., about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. They were overcome by a 90-foot wall of flame. An auto mechanic accused of setting the wildfire awaits trial on charges of murder. “It strikes a nerve in us that a lot of our firefighting brothers and sisters are being lost protecting structures,” said Bodie Shaw, deputy fire director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. — Associated Press writers John Miller in Boise, Idaho, Matt Brown in Billings, Mont., Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles, Aaron C. Davis in Sacramento, Calif., Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., Brendan Riley in Carson City, Nev., and Colleen Slevin and Catherine Tsai in Denver contributed to this story. Tahoe Daily Tribune Web Editor Jeff Munson also contributed to this story.

Burning desire for fire

It’s a cliche, but it’s what they are doing. California is fighting fire with fire. Starting last week and ending around Thanksgiving, the California Department of Parks and Recreation Sierra District Resource Unit is administering prescribed burns on about 250 acres of forest in Sugar Pine Point State Park. “(Prescribed burning) is ecologically very important,” said Gary Walter, senior resource ecologist for California State Parks. “Natural fires are a part of this ecosystem. This helps reduce the risk of a devastating wildfire.” Hand crews of about five to 15 people as well as two fire trucks typically burn about 10 to 35 acres at a time. They burn the understory, which includes surface fuels and smaller trees. By burning ladder fuels, it reduces the risk of a wildfire spreading into the larger trees’ crowns and creating a devastating blaze. “The history of the basin shows that natural fires ignited by lightning happened about every seven to 15 years in the lower-elevation forests,” Walter said. “The vegetation is prepared to handle the fires.” Conditions such as wind speeds, temperature and lack of precipitation dictate when the crews can start the prescribed burns. Walter said if the fire “acts out of prescription,” the workers extinguish it or call in wildfire suppression crews to put it out. “If a fire is not acting like you want it to, even if it’s burning too slow and creating a lot of smoke, it’s our standard operating procedure to have it extinguished,” he said. In addition to decreasing the risk of devastating wildfire, Walter said prescribed burns help forest health. When forests, such as most of the ones in the Lake Tahoe Basin, are too dense, trees compete against each other for nutrients and water, diminishing the health of all the trees. Walter also said the fertility of the soil benefits from the burn. “It’s well recognized now that the ecological benefits are critical if you’re going to have the type of forest everyone wants,” he said. California State Parks has been administering prescribed burns in the Lake Tahoe Basin since 1984. Prescribed burns were completed in some state parks as early as 1976. Walter said the crews try hard to minimize the impact of smoke on nearby communities. A “burn hotline” can be contacted at (530) 583-2240 for comments or complaints. Burn times are posted on the hotline about 48 hours in advance. Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com Visitors Guide | News | Diversions | Marketplace | Weather | Community Copyright, tahoe.com. Materials contained within this site may not be used without permission. About tahoe.com…

Sunday night smoke update: Smoke casts heavy pall over Lake Tahoe Basin

Though there aren’t any fires burning in the Lake Tahoe Basin this evening, a heavy drift of smoke from fires throughout northern California has cast a heavy pall on the region. Several 911 calls to local police and fire dispatchers had fire departments searching for nearby fires, but, as of 7:22 Sunday night, all firefighters can report is dense smoke that has taken over the basin. The last call tonight came in from the Lincoln Park subdivision in Douglas County where a citizen reported heavy smoke in the Cave Rock area where they thought it was a fire within the area. Tahoe Douglas firefighters searched the area and found nothing but the heavy smoke drifting from the Sierra into the basin. Dispatchers from across the lake have been taking calls tonight from the west and north shores, inquiring about the heavy smoke and asking whether there are fires nearby. According to CalFire, which is tracking all wildfires burning in California, the state has responded to the following counties: Butte:The Butte Lightning Complex has burned 26,000 acres and is 50 percent contained. Mendocino: The Mendocino Lightning Complex has burned 41,215 acres and is 45 percent contained. Shasta and Trinity: The Shasta and Trinity Lightning has burned 53,600 acres and is 55 percent contained. Lassen and Modoc: The Corral Fire has burned 12,500 acres and is 70 percent contained. Humboldt: The Humboldt Complex has burned 1,275 acres and is 75 percent contained. The fires are burning throughout Humboldt County, with the largest fire, the Paradise Fire, north of Shelter Cove and is 925 acres and 75 percent contained. Mariposa: The Oliver Fire is located in the Ponderosa Basin and is 2,789 acres and 100 percent contained. Lake: The Walker Fire burned 14,500 acres and is now 100 percent contained. Napa and Solano: The Wild Fire burned 40,000 acres and is now 100 percent contained. Santa Clara: The Whitehurst and Hummingbird Fires burned a combined 994 acres and are both now 100 percent contained. Tehama and Glenn: The Tehama-Glenn Lightning Complex burned 22,907 acres and is now 100 percent contained. To learn more about the wildfires, log onto: http://www.fire.ca.gov/index_incidents.php

Letter — Fire department thanks donors

The South Lake Tahoe Fire Department would like to recognize the residents of South Lake Tahoe for their support during our “Fill a Boot for Burns” boot drive. The donations are community so generously gave went to the Firefighters for Burns program, which helps the recovery for burn victims. The money also supports fire and burn prevention programs, research and education for burn teams and firefighters, and the burn treatment facility at UC Davis Medical Center-Regional Burn Center. The majority of donations go to kids and their families for their long recovery process. We want to thank Raley’s at each end of town, Albertsons and Safeway for allowing us to set up in front of their businesses. This is an important program to us. Thank you residents of South Lake Tahoe for your generosity and support of your local fire department. We truly appreciate it. Brad Piazzo South Lake Tahoe Fire Department

Fires burning in both California and Nevada near Tahoe

Firefighters in the region and throughout the West have had a busy summer so far, and there are few signs pointing toward an easing in the fire season. Over 5,000 firefighters are on the lines of 11 large wildfires burning in California, according to a Thursday morning update from Cal Fire. That includes the Detwiler Fire, which had burned 81,350 acres and was only 75 percent contained Thursday. Since the fire started July 16 in Mariposa County, 63 residences have been destroyed and another 500 are threatened, according to Cal Fire. Seven firefighter units were on hand earlier this week battling the Ranch Fire in El Dorado County south of Placerville. The fire forced mandatory evacuations Wednesday afternoon shortly after the blaze was reported. At one point 40 to 50 structures were threatened, according to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. By Wednesday evening the fire had grown to more than 100 acres but the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted. Thursday morning the sheriff’s office announced crews had reached soft containment of the 140-acre fire. On the Nevada side of the border, officials hope to have a line around the 5,386-acre Preacher Fire, which is burning in the Pine Nut Mountains east of Gardnerville, by noon Saturday. Crews continued to mop up hot spots and secure the perimeter of the fire Thursday. There was a line around a fifth of the fire, with focus on the northern flank to protect nearby homes. “As the western and eastern edges are in extremely steep terrain, additional crews have been assigned to these areas where access by engines is limited,” according to fire public information officer Denise Cobb. “Dozers have made excellent progress on the northern edge of the fire and crews will continue today to secure the line.” More than 500 firefighters are working on the blaze, which began with a lightning strike early Monday morning. National Weather Service forecasters predict a chance of lightning storms on Friday and Saturday. The cost of fighting the fire hit $1.2 million on Thursday, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center incident management situation report. A grant approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover up to three-quarters of the fire’s cost. Douglas County commissioners issued a disaster declaration on Tuesday.

Lake Tahoe Forest Service to conduct fall prescirbed burns and wildfire management

Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team — a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service, state and local land management agencies — announced the start of their fall prescribed fire program for the Tahoe Basin this month. "Prescribed fire is an important tool used to maintain forest health and reduce the buildup of hazardous fuels," said U.S. Forest Service fire management officer Kit Bailey in a press release. "Cooler, wetter, fall weather is an ideal time to carry out these projects that will help reduce the chance of wildfire and provide added protection to communities in the Lake Tahoe Basin." Prescribed burning typically occurs in the fall and spring, with occasional operations in winter if conditions allow. All burning decisions will be dependent on weather and conditions. Announcements for planned burns may come on short notice, within a week or even a few days prior to burning. Because the Forest Service manages roughly 75 percent of land in the Tahoe Basin, much of the burning will fall under their jurisdiction. State-managed urban parcels could also be under consideration for planned burns. California State Park officials announced plans this week for prescribed burns in Burton Creek State Park and Sugar Pine Point State Park on Lake Tahoe's West Shore. No specific date has been set, but those burns could start as early as Tuesday, Oct. 13. Both state and federal agencies said they take weather patterns into consideration for smoke dispersal. "We work very closely with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to get our weather forecast," said Cheva Gabor, Tahoe Basin Forest Service public affairs officer. "I think sometimes people think we lick our finger and stick it out the window to see the weather." Prescribed fires are assigned for two reasons. They are used to minimize wildfire risk by thinning forests and burning excess fuels that could cause a fire, or as understory burning (along the forest floor) to replicate natural fires and encourage ecosystem health. "These landscapes are used to fire. There are plants that depend on fire," Gabor said. Current prescribed burn plans are to reduce fuels. Speaking on behalf of the Forest Service, Gabor explained, "right now we have a backlog of prescribed fire acres" for that purpose. Those concerns need to be addressed prior to understory burning for overall forest health. "Our fuels in the basin are too heavy. Our forests are really thick," Gabor said. "Prescribed fire is a way to not have wildfires happen." The burning process involves stacking piles of fuels for fires in a prescribed area. Those burn piles then are typically left to dry for two years or more. "It's got to cure. If we try to burn it too fast, it will not burn well and put off a lot of smoke," Gabor said, adding that the piles do not pose an increased risk of wildfire. "There's a misconception that it increases the risk." Should a burn pile catch fire accidentally it would be manageable, she said, adding that it is also unlikely. Temperature, humidity, wind, surrounding vegetation and dispersal of smoke are all taken into consideration when assigning a prescribed burn. Agencies also coordinate with state and local county air pollution control districts when making a decision. Fire crews conduct test burns of individual piles prior to any operation in order to confirm conditions. "Sometimes the opportunity for a burn will come up on short notice," Gabor said. "We try to get conditions where the smoke will go up and out of the basin." The Tahoe Fire and Fuels team reports that they will give as much advance notice as possible prior to a burn. Typically, agencies do not formally close areas for prescribed burning. Currently the Forest Service does have two parcels closed for management near Camp Richardson and Tahoe Mountain, on the edge of the Angora Burn. Gabor said those closures apply to when operations are underway. The public may use the Tahoe Mountain trailhead access points if there is not active work taking place. News releases regarding prescribed burn plans are often released on Fridays, but can also be issued a day or two prior to a burn. To receive prescribed fire notifications, send an email to pa_ltbmu@fs.fed.us. Information is also available through the Tahoe Basin U.S. Forest Service website or at http://www.tahoefft.org. Tahoe National Forest Lifting Fire Restrictions U.S. Forest Service officials announced this week that fire restrictions in the Tahoe National Forest were lifted as of Tuesday, Oct. 6. Recent precipitation and conditions in the forest prompted the decision to end restrictions. Visitors to the forest may have campfires outside of designated campgrounds with a valid California campfire permit; smoke outside of designated sites; and operate internal combustion engines off forest roads and trails where appropriate. Campfire permits are free from any Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) office. You can also obtain a campfire permit online at http://www.preventwildfireca.org. "Although fire restrictions have been lifted, forest fires can still occur," said forest supervisor Tom Quinn. "Warm, dry and windy weather conditions are still likely outside of our traditional fire season, and that means the fire danger is still present. Please continue to be careful with fires while in the national forest." The Forest Service reminds visitors to never leave campfires or lit lanterns and stoves unattended and to make sure equipment and off-road vehicles have working spark arresters. Other wildfire prevention practices can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/r5/fire-aviation/prevention. While restrictions have been lifted for the Tahoe National Forest, Cal Fire continues to have a statewide burn ban.

Guest View: Fire plays a critical role in Lake Tahoe’s past, present and future

By choosing to live in the Lake Tahoe Basin, we have chosen to be a neighbor to fire. Long before we arrived, lightning strikes ignited wildfires that cleared brush and dead trees from the forest floor and kept the remaining trees widely spaced. These fires were frequent and small in size, typically with low flame heights. Over the past century, as more people have settled around Lake Tahoe, we have aggressively suppressed fires. Forests once described as open and parklike now are dense with fuels. A thick understory of smaller trees, brush and dead vegetation carries fire to the treetops. Once there, the fire can begin a rapid and intense spread through the narrowly spaced crowns. The unintended result of decades of fire suppression has been a higher risk of catastrophic wildfire. Clearly, we can’t turn back the clock and allow wildfire to fully resume its natural role. We must suppress wildfires that threaten our communities. But using fire on our terms, called prescribed fire, is an important tool for reducing the fuel load in our forests and restoring them to a healthier condition. Currently, the most common prescribed fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin is pile burning. The piles represent a final step in the first phase of treatments to thin forests, limit the fuel available to a wildfire and reduce the opportunity for fire to spread to the tree crowns. Many local residents support pile burning. Even when they’re bothered by the smoke, they understand that the inconvenience is temporary, particularly compared with the intensity and duration of smoke from a catastrophic wildfire. Nonetheless, every year, questions arise about why the Forest Service and other agencies pile and burn. The need to minimize soil erosion to protect water quality and preserve the clarity of Lake Tahoe limits the use of mechanical equipment for thinning projects on steeper slopes and wet areas. This means that grinding up woody debris and leaving it in place or shipping it out as biomass are not options. Instead, crews thin by hand, then pile the small trees, limbs and brush for burning. Road access for mechanical equipment also is a concern. Only 30 percent of National Forest System lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin requiring fuels reduction are accessible by roads. Where mechanical thinning is allowed and road access available, the Forest Service gives contractors the option of chipping, masticating or biomass removal. Piling and burning is only an option for larger, older logs that are too big or rotted to be removed another way. Biomass has great potential for areas with good road access, but costs to remove and ship biomass material currently are higher than the value of the biomass material, and demand varies. Perhaps one day biomass and other technologies will develop to the extent that piling and burning no longer will play a major role in our fuels treatment process. Yet that will not mean an end to the presence of smoke for Lake Tahoe residents. That’s because two other types of fire, one prescribed and one natural, have important roles to play in keeping fuel levels down and restoring healthy forests. Once initial treatment has reduced fuel loading, professionally managed understory fires can help keep fuels at a lower level and replicate fire’s natural role in maintaining healthy forests. As initial fuels treatments progress, residents around the lake can expect to see fewer pile burns and more understory burns. In remote areas such as the Desolation Wilderness, public land managers may allow lightning-caused fires to burn, under close monitoring, rather than suppressing them immediately. Known as “Wildland Fire Use,” this practice requires careful consideration of weather conditions and fire location. Both understory burns and Wildland Fire Use benefit forest health by triggering the sprouting of seeds, allowing the growth of fire-adapted native grasses, herbs and new shrubs that provide food for wildlife, and increasing the water supply by removing thick stands of shrubs. Before starting any prescribed fire, whether pile burns or understory burns, we closely monitor fuel moisture and weather conditions to ensure they’ll be favorable for dispersing smoke and containing the burn. The burns are not staffed unless conditions change, in which case crews will return to monitor the situation and may extinguish the piles. If you are sensitive to smoke, call (530) 543-2600 to be notified when prescribed fire is planned near your home, or visit http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu/fire/current.shtml. Take basic steps such as closing windows and doors, and avoiding outdoor activity. But above all, remember that living in the Lake Tahoe Basin means living with fire. And that means living with smoke, whether it’s from a local wildfire, fires burning adjacent to the basin or a prescribed burn. – Terri Marceron is forest supervisor for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service.