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Fighting fire with fire

Patrick McCartney

Tahoe Basin forests are still feeling the effects of Comstock Era clear-cutting, a century of fire suppression and, most recently, an infestation of bark beetles. Over the next three days, the Tahoe Daily Tribune will look at the use of fire to restore the forest’s health and possible uses for Tahoe’s surplus trees.

The U.S. Forest Service knows it is walking a fine line.

On one hand, the agency that oversees 160,000 acres of Tahoe Basin forests wants to reintroduce fire as a forest management tool.



On the other hand, burning 1,000 or more acres a year will inevitably raise objections from residents concerned with the health effects of smoke and the possibility of a controlled fire escaping its boundaries.

“There is a certain inherent risk in the use of fire,” said Linda Massey, public information officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “We believe we understand enough of the science that we can greatly minimize the risk. But there is nothing like 100 percent risk-free fire.”



It’s the risk of a prescribed fire escaping control that worries Gil Wetenkamp of South Lake Tahoe. His family lost a home to fire when he was young, and he doesn’t want to lose another.

“What I’m concerned about is the Forest Service policy, going out and setting a fire and then walking away from it,” Wetenkamp said. “They’re trying to convince me they’re safe … and I’m not buying it. I’m concerned about that 1 percent to 5 percent of fires that could get away.”

Wetenkamp said he wants the Forest Service to post personnel overnight at the site of controlled burns to make sure they don’t flare up and threaten homes.

If the Forest Service is unable to do that, he said the agency should make it easier for residents to harvest unwanted trees to lessen the chance of a large fire. Or even invite residents to serve as volunteer firewatchers at controlled burns.

To Melissa Odlin of Meyers, smoke from controlled fires is the issue. A week ago, the smoke from slash pile fires in the Pioneer Trail area settled into her neighborhood, penetrating her home and that of her neighbors.

Odlin was one of two residents to suffer migraine headaches as the smoke lingered overnight.

“I understand this is (the Forest Service’s) manner of reducing fire danger, but where does our health enter into it?” Odlin asked. “How about our quality of life?”

Complaints over smoke and the risk from controlled fire are of great concern to the Forest Service, said Mark Johnson, the Tahoe Basin assistant fire management officer. Under plans developed during the July visit by President Clinton, the agency plans to burn up to 1,000 acres a year in the Tahoe Basin over the next five years.

And, if Tahoe’s forests are to return to a healthier, pre-European condition, public agencies would have to burn up to 10,000 acres a year.

As the agency gains experience with the use of fire, it can better avoid conditions that lead to conflicts with residents, Johnson said.

“Not long ago, the chief of the Forest Service said prescribed fire is the riskiest thing we do,” Johnson said. “What do we do to mitigate the risk? As much planning as possible.”

One concern the agency must deal with is the risk of violating air quality standards. The California Air Resources Board determines which days fires are allowed, but the Forest Service has to avoid violating state and federal air standards.

“It’s a very complicated situation,” Johnson said. “As we increase our prescribed burns along with our sister agencies, and compete for the same airshed, we will have to set up more consistent monitoring.”

The California Forestry Association believes it has the answer to complaints from controlled burns: harvest unwanted trees through logging rather than by fire.

“Burning 10,000 acres a year would release more than 25,000 tons of carbon monoxide and 4 tons of particulates,” said Chris Nance, an association spokesman. “The same acreage could be mechanically treated with 97 percent less pollution.”

Yet, despite its impact, fire will remain a desirable tool for restoring the health of the basin’s forests, said Gary Walter of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

“You can’t get the beneficial effects of fire without using fire,” said Walter, who has supervised controlled fires at Lake Tahoe’s state parks since 1984. “Fire does a lot of pruning and reducing of fuels, it selectively removes those trees that are susceptible to fire, and it recycles nutrients rather than removes them.”


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