Forest Service gears up for prescribed burns |

Forest Service gears up for prescribed burns

by Andy Bourelle

Ah, springtime – melting snow, warm weather and prescribed burns.

Yes, that’s right. Although the U.S. Forest Service performs probably 80 percent of its prescribed burning in the fall, a limited amount is left for spring.

The big project this season will be 375 acres near Spooner Summit, tentatively scheduled for the third week in May. The exact date depends largely on Mother Nature.

“When we begin obviously depends on the snowmelt in the area we’ll be burning,” said Mark Johnson, acting fire management officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

The only other prescribed fires planned will be near the Pioneer Trail area as part of a large, several-yearlong fuel-reduction project. It will consist of pile burning and could begin as early as the second week in May.

While spring provides good conditions for prescribed fire, the conditions don’t last long.

“The fuels have to be available to burn, and that has to do with snowmelt. Then it’s a narrow window, because we bump up against fire season (in the summer),” Johnson said. “One advantage of burning in the spring is the conditions. In the fall, the evenings get cold, and smoke hangs around. The mixing conditions atmospherically are a lot better in the spring to get that smoke up and out.”

Fire is a natural part of the Lake Tahoe environment, Johnson said. Administering prescribed burns helps increase forest health as well as cut down on the possibility of a catastrophic wildfire. Without mechanical treatments and prescribed burning, Lake Tahoe forests become too thick. Trees compete for sunlight and nutrients, and become more susceptible to insect infestation.

As many as 20 to 30 percent of the trees in the basin are dead. The mortality rate in healthy forests should be about 3 to 5 percent.

“When we do understory burning, we’re trying to reintroduce a process the forest needs to actually make it more resilient to fire,” Johnson said. “These are fire-dependent ecosystems that have been without fire for years.”

Historical natural fires are believed to have been low- to moderate-intensity fires that thinned the lower vegetation and kept the forests thin. A wildfire now likely would be very intense and possibly devastating, because of the vast amount of fuels in the forest.

While South Shore pile burning will be near residential areas and the East Shore understory burn will be near major highways, Johnson said the Forest Service wants to take all the measures possible to minimize the impacts of the smoke.

“We’re hopeful people look beyond the short-term smoke,” Johnson said. “When we do this, the benefits last for many, many years.”

Next month, information about when and where prescribed burns will be conducted can be obtained by calling (530) 573-2707 or by accessing the World Wide Web at

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