GUEST COLUMN: Healthy forest, healthy lake
We are making significant progress around the Tahoe Basin in the effort to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Last year was a record-setting year for restoring forest health and making our communities safer. The following accomplishments highlight this effort:
• Created 1,400 acres of shaded fuel breaks
• Completed defensible space on 772 properties through the rebate program funded by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act
• Received inspections to begin defensible space work for 4,000 additional properties
• Fulfilled 2,400 free curbside chipping requests to mulch debris at homes
Without a doubt, 2010 is matching the pace set in 2009. The work of property owners and the partnerships developed between fire agencies, the Nevada Fire Safe Council, and Tahoe environmental agencies have been key to this success.
While Tahoe’s forests and the broader ecosystem are getting healthier because of this work, there is much more to accomplish moving forward. Pivotal to continued progress is the need for an open mind from Basin residents toward defensible space and forest fuels reduction. This kind of work can be startling at first because many local foot paths and roadside forest stands can only be remembered as dense thickets-the result of a century of fire suppression efforts. Shaded fuel breaks, on the other hand, are buffers around neighborhoods where selected trees, brush, and dead material have been removed in a way that will cause an approaching wildfire to burn with smaller flames and spread at a slower rate. These breaks are proven measures to force a wildfire traveling through the tree tops or crowns down to the forest floor where firefighters have a better chance of safely attacking it head on.
After treatment, these places become airy not only to humans, but also to vegetation and wildlife. The trees are well spaced and less susceptible to drought and disease. Smaller trees and brush on the forest floor are significantly thinned not only to help manage wildfire, but also to recreate a natural forest setting that has been absent at Tahoe since clear-cutting for the Comstock silver mines began in the 1860s.
Just as shaded fuel breaks are at first surprising to those accustomed to overstocked forests, the resilience of these areas after treatment is equally astonishing. For anyone concerned about the initial phase of treatment, take a look at other seasoned fuel breaks around Tahoe.
• Third Creek project, Sierra Nevada College campus, Incline Village, NV
• Whittell High School and Zephyr Cove Park project, Zephyr Cove, NV
• Old County project, North Tahoe High School, Tahoe City, CA
• Cold Creek project, South Lake Tahoe, CA
In only one year, the Third Creek project is a model project. Lush, healthy vegetation has sprung back as planned and recreation and safety have been enhanced. At each of these project sites, environmental protections for water quality and wildlife habitat were strenuously adhered to and supervised by a team of agency representatives cooperating through a streamlined process.
As we grow accustomed to the way these projects are implemented and their changes to the landscape, we are settling into the look and feel of a healthy forest. Low impact logging equipment and chipping machines to thin brush are becoming commonplace in our communities and we can be proud of the result-even if it takes a season or two for your favorite walk to look “normal” again.
Forests are not museums. They change and grow. Without continued monitoring and maintenance, tree and brush density will return, and the hazardous fuel situation now being corrected will once again be upon us. These treatments are not one-time activities but an important component of long term fuel management.
Ramped up efforts must be sustained as a baseline to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire in Lake Tahoe communities. Our successful and efficient collaborative efforts are drawing substantial federal and state funding because we are showing how important fuel reduction is to Lake Tahoe. More than $17 million in private, state, and federal funding have been provided so far and another $50 million is necessary to complete the projects in the TFFT’s 10-year Strategy. Together, we can make 2010 another record year for wildfire safety at Lake Tahoe and leave a legacy of stewardship.
For more information on Lake Tahoe fire protection and defensible space, visit http://www.TahoeFireSafe.com or call your local fire district or department.
– Chief Guy LeFever is a 36 year veteran of the fire service working the past 32 years with Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District. He was hired from L.A. County Fire in 1979 as a firefighter and has worked for Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, and in 2004 was promoted to the rank of fire chief.
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