Burning desire for forest health | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Burning desire for forest health

Driving along U.S. Highway 50 or State Route 28 Wednesday, motorists may have seen smoke rising out of the forest.

Then again, there is a good chance people missed it. If it wasn’t for the orange signs posted along the highways indicating that the area around Spooner Summit was subject to a prescribed burn, many motorists may not have noticed. At times there was a light haze; other times there was barely any indication.

That is because atmospheric conditions in the spring are good for getting smoke up and out of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“We’d like to do more spring burning, because it’s more conducive for smoke management,” said Mark Johnson, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “The problem is there is a narrow window. We have to wait for the snow to melt, and it gets dry really quick. There was snow on parts of this site just a week ago.”

The Forest Service started a 350-acre burn Wednesday between Spooner Lake and Glenbrook. Called the Captain Pomin Prescribed Burn – because of a so-called Captain Pomin Rock in the area – the prescribed fire could last between seven and 15 days, Johnson estimated. The agency planned to burn 45 acres Wednesday.

“We’re reintroducing fire to a fire-dependent ecosystem that has been without fire for about 100 years. And the other thing we’re doing is reducing the wildfire hazard,” Johnson said.

Penn State Associate Professor Alan Taylor has conducted research on the fire history of the basin. His research shows prior to settlement low- to moderate-intensity natural fires would move through areas every two to 20 years. They thinned the lower vegetation and kept the forests from becoming overly thick. For more than 100 years, however, fire has been largely absent from the basin.

Now the forests in the basin are too dense. Trees compete against each other for sunlight and nutrients. And while prehistoric forests likely contained numerous sizes of trees, present-day Tahoe forests contain a lot of smaller, same-sized trees.

Kevin Laves, wildlife biologist for the Forest Service, said the prescribed burn is beneficial for creating wildlife habitat. By burning away smaller trees and allowing larger trees to reach their full potential, that helps develop an old-growth-type of forest.

“There may be some short-term loss, but there are huge long-term benefits,” he said. “We have a lot of animals in the basin that are old-growth-dependent species.”

The prescribed burn also shouldn’t harm animals living in the area.

“This fire is just creeping. There aren’t a lot of animals that can’t get away from a prescribed burn,” Laves said. “Hopefully, this will lessen the chance of a fast-moving wildfire that animals may not be able to get away from.”

About 20 workers and three fire engines were on site Wednesday. Forest Service workers walked through the 45-acre parcel, which is near Glenbrook, with hand-ignition drip torches. The engines were there not only to ensure the fire didn’t get out of hand but also to protect a historic resource within the area.

“We have a cultural resource archeological site we’re protecting. It’s a historic cabin from the Comstock logging days,” Johnson said. “There’s not much left of it, but it’s lasted over a hundred years. So it’s significant.”

Before starting to burn each day, the Forest Service will call a national fire weather service which provides a site-specific forecast for the proposed burn area. Knowing estimated wind speeds, humidity and temperature, the Forest Service can decide whether the area is within prescription for a controlled fire that day. Additionally, the Forest Service updates the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Air Quality daily about the burn’s progress.

“A big concern of ours is the community of Glenbrook, which is just to the west of us,” Johnson said. “One of the reasons we do spring burning is there’s less a chance of a smoke problem.”

Up-to-date information on the status of the Captain Pomin prescribed burn can be obtained by calling (530) 573-2707 or by accessing the World Wide Web at http://www.fed.fs.fed.us/r5/laketahoe

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