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Forests treated by major burn

by Andy Bourelle

The air has been filled with smoke.

No kidding? Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Anyone who has been near the “Y” or around Emerald Bay in the last few days probably knows the U.S. Forest Service is administering a prescribed burn. And by the smoke, they probably know it’s a major prescribed burn – and they would be correct.

“This is the largest prescribed underburning we’ve conducted on South Shore in the last 25 years,” said Mark Johnson, acting fire management officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

What started Tuesday afternoon likely will go on for three to six more days, weather permitting.

“We’ll try to minimize the impact on Highway 89 over the weekend,” Johnson said, “but for the next several days, there will be smoke in the air.”

Between Cathedral Road and the Spring Creek Summer Home Tract, off of Highway 89 near Fallen Leaf Lake, the forest service is in the process of burning about 270 acres.

“Believe me, we realize the smoke is a nuisance, but we really hope people understand it’s for a limited time,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to be a health hazard, and it has an overall long-term benefit to the forest.”

The current burn project is understory burning, opposed to pile burning the forest service administers at other locations. However, understory burning tends to produce more smoke, Johnson said.

Workers from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and a private contractor called Firestop go through subdivided parcels of the Cathedral Burn Project and start fires at the tops of hills, which slowly back down hills.

The slow-burning fires consume small logs and some small trees, leaving larger logs and scorching the bottoms of the bigger living trees.

The large dead logs that survive, as well dead trees that remain standing, will serve as wildlife habitat. However, the fuels that could exacerbate a devastating wildfire are gone.

“This is exactly how the fire behaved during pre-settlement times,” Johnson said.

Prior to the 1870s, the forests of the Tahoe Basin were more open. Over a three-decade period beginning in the late 1870s, 60 percent of the forest was clear cut to supply timber for the Comstock mines in Virginia City. Fire has been suppressed since.

“This landscape has not seen fire for 100 years,” Johnson said. “This is the most significant agent of change you can introduce to the forest.”

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. A wildfire now would likely be a very intense fire because of the vast amount of fuels in the forest, from wood on the ground and from standing dead trees.

Referring to the Cathedral Project, Johnson said: “If a wildfire came through here in a few years – so what?”

While the forest floor will look black after the fires are out, Johnson said, the forest will be back to normal in about one year.

Resulting from the 1997 Presidential Summit at Lake Tahoe, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is committed to burning 1,000 acres annually, and about 80 percent of that is completed in the fall. The forest service plans to administer about 450 acres of pile burning. Another understory burn is planned later for about 370 acres near Spooner Summit.

The Cascade Project is under way now because of perfect conditions, according to the forest service.

“The conditions we have right now are ideal,” said Lisa O’Daly, community planner for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “One hundred percent in prescription.”

Residents are encouraged to call the U.S. Forest Service’s “Burn Hotline” for information or to leave comments: (530) 573-2707

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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