Burning desire for fire | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Burning desire for fire

Andy Bourelle

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

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