The smoky skies hanging over Lake Tahoe are an obvious reminder of the dangers wildfires pose to the region. But, unlike the vast acreage burned in the Rim Fire, the South Shore is undergoing steps that may prevent a massive wildfire from sweeping through the area.
The South Shore Fuels Reduction Project is chugging into its second year. Both mechanically and by hand, crews have thinned thousands of acres. Though the project has met some controversy, the Forest Service remains confident that it will drastically reduce the risk of a devastating fire.
“The Rim Fire puts it into perspective,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said. “It reminds you what a severe wildfire can do. We don’t want to be in that situation.”
After more than seven years of planning, the forest service approved the South Shore Fuels Reduction Project in January 2012. The project proposed more than 10,000 acres of forest surrounding South Lake Tahoe be thinned. So far, crews have thinned about 2,000 acres.
On part of the project site near Fallen Leaf Lake Wednesday, workers fell and dragged trees to a landing site using heavy machinery. A loader grabbed and dropped cut logs onto a truck. An excavator with a loveseat-size masticator head — used for pummeling and grinding branches and other debris — waited for repairs.
Depending on whether they’re hand thinning or mechanical thinning, crews can thin between two and 10 acres per day, USFS forester Duncan Leao said. But areas aren’t thinned willy-nilly, he added. Before an area is thinned, trained foresters establish a balance between the right amount of fuels reduction, the diversity of tree life and a suitable wildlife habitat.
“Here we’ve got willow, alder, a few brush species, some large trees and a few snags,” Leao said, looking over a plot of newly thinned forest. “This is one of our desired finished projects.”
Much of the problem of the overly dense forests stems from the Comstock era logging that pervaded throughout the basin. After old growth pines were clear cut, much of what grew back were smaller, more tightly packed white fir. Thinning the smaller trees helps cut the fuel ladder that can drive larger fires.
“Little trees carry fire in to the tree tops and make it more severe,” Leao said. “If there is a wildfire, the goal is to keep it closer to the ground where firefighters can safely and effectively suppress it.”
Thinning also helps promote the growth of larger, healthier trees and a larger variety of species, Heck added.
“Once we do the thinning, there’s less competition and it enables trees to grow bigger than they would have,” Heck said.
Since the work started last year, the forest service has received numerous complaints about the project’s effects. To thin the forest, temporary roads must be built. Areas must be closed. And the look and feel of the forest changes. This is what people don’t like, Heck said.
“It’s the shock of seeing it differently than you’re used to,” she said. “Any change we make is pretty devastating to them.”
But fuels reduction has proved its worth, Heck said. During the 2007 Angora Fire, some of the areas least burned were those that had been thinned.
“We were able to save homes and there is a forest still intact in those areas,” Leao said. “I believe we can reduce the size and severity of fires.”