Lake Tahoe fire season in sight |

Lake Tahoe fire season in sight

Adam Jensen / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily TribuneA prescribed burn to take down wood piles was done at Stateline last Monday.

LAKE TAHOE ” A third consecutive Sierra winter with below-average precipitation has been both a blessing and a curse to reducing the threat catastrophic wildfires poses to the Lake Tahoe Basin, firefighters and agency officials said Tuesday.

Below-average snowfall in the Sierra has allowed prescribed burns to proceed throughout much of the winter, but will also set the stage for what could be a long and intense wildfire season in the mountain range.

On March 20, the basin’s biggest land owner ” the U.S. Forest Service ” surpassed its prescribed burning goal for the fiscal year, which started in October.

“Seven months into fiscal year 2009, we have already exceeded our target for prescribed burning for the entire fiscal year,” Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said in an e-mail.

The Kingsbury Grade, Glenbrook, Blackwood Canyon, Rubicon and D.L. Bliss areas made up most of the 1,214 acres burned by the agency since October, Heck said.

“We have had good weather conditions for burning throughout the fiscal year, but we completed most of the acres in the fall, due to good upper- level transport winds that carry smoke up and out of the Lake Tahoe Basin,” Heck said.

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When several in-progress projects are complete, the number of acres treated by the Forest Service will jump significantly for this fiscal year, Heck added.

Mediocre snowfall has also allowed Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District to conduct pile burns throughout most of the winter, said Keegan Schafer, supervisor of the Zephyr Fire Crew, while supervising work on some of the crew’s last burn piles of the winter season on April 20.

The crew expects to continue fuels reductions work on several projects throughout the summer.

“If we’re here in the basin, we’re doing fuel reduction,” Schafer said.

The lack of snowfall did hinder at least two tree-removal efforts at or near the South Shore this year.

Inadequate snow depth caused crews to stop work early on a fuels reduction project on Tahoe’s west shore because muddy conditions had the potential to hurt water quality, said John Pang, chief of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District.

Muddy conditions also delayed a Forest Service project to remove hazardous trees from around roads and trails in the Angora fire burn zone.

Work by Lake Valley Fire Protection District’s fuels crew ” which keeps several of its 21-member fuels reduction team employed year around ” wasn’t affected by the below-average snowfall this season, said Chief Jeff Michael.

During the winter, crew members continued defensible space inspections and completed work on a couple of fuel reduction projects started the previous year, Michael said.

Projects on North Upper Truckee Road and Cold Creek Trail are slated for this summer, Michael said.

South Lake Tahoe also used the crew to complete projects off Glenwood Way, Tahoe Vista Drive and Julie Lane, said South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti.

Despite the increased fuel reduction efforts, the wildfire threat in the Tahoe basin remains high. Basin fire districts continue to watch the conditions closely, Gigliotti said.

“We continue to monitor the weather and the influence of weather up here and we’re ramping up to make sure we’re prepared for fire season when it arrives,” Gigliotti said.

And like last year, a lack of precipitation is expected to get the fire season off to an early start, according to basin fire chiefs and a regional wildfire threat assessment.

“We didn’t have that great of a year,” Michael said. “The timber and the fuels that are out there right now are already drying out.”

Most of the Lake Tahoe Basin is shown as having a “normal” risk of large wildfires, while much of the west shore of Lake Tahoe falls into an area of “above normal,” according to a 2009 preliminary seasonal assessment from the National Interagency Fire Center.

The “above normal” wildfire risk area that includes the west shore of Lake Tahoe also encompasses most of Northern California.

“The snowpack has already receded to the 4,500- to 6000-foot elevation band, and by early June it is expected to remain at only the highest elevations,” according to an executive summary of the assessment. “We expect the typical scenario of large fire potential progressing from lower to higher elevations, but on an earlier than average pace for both regimes.”

The outlook relies on past and current predictions, existing conditions and trends, but Schafer relayed a simpler way to predict the strength of the regional fire season that was handed down to him by a veteran firefighter.

“The Eastern Sierras never go without burning for more than two years,” Schafer said. “We didn’t really burn last year, so we’ll probably have an active fire season.”

Although Pang said he was grateful for recent grants for fuel reduction work in the basin acquired by the Forest Service and administered by the Nevada Fire Safe Council, he also added that funding will likely be more of a factor in suppressing wildfires than in previous years.

“This is a year where budgets are cut everywhere,” Pang said. “It’s just going to be a tough season if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.”

“Were all sitting on pins and needles, hopefully Mother Nature will bring us some moisture,” Pang added.

Pang was among those officials urging residents to act responsibly when it comes to fire, and urged residents to contact their respective fire protection agencies for more information on how to prepare for wildfire season.