Large-scale Lake Tahoe burn project under public microscope
Planning for large-scale forest fuels reduction that will treat thousands of acres in the Tahoe Basin is beginning.
The plan is still two years out and will need more environmental review before moving forward, but when finished around 2012, some 3,200 acres of Lake Tahoe forest will be in a condition that more closely resembles the area’s natural ecosystem, said Rex Norman of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
If approved, the U.S. Forest Service will conduct the project in California and Nevada in five different counties. Placer and El Dorado counties will see the most activity. More than 1,500 acres are scheduled to be burned in Placer County.
The controlled burns could start by 2010 and may take two to three years to complete, Norman said.
The method planned is called underburning, where a low-intensity fire is started in the “duff” that sits on the forest floor below an understory of trees.
In the past, low-intensity forest fires that burned pine cones, needles and bark chips were started frequently either by Native Americans or more frequently by lightening, Norman said. Those low impact fires kept thick vegetation from building into the combustible tinder that is common throughout the Basin and the Sierra Nevada.
“These fires encouraged the new growth of native vegetation, and helped to maintain the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire,” Norman said.
Understory burning is like the second stage to the prescribed burning of piles of woody material that Basin residents may be used to.
The heavy work takes place first. Crews thin the forest by hand and pile up saplings and dead wood into “slash piles.” The material is then burned for a fast and economical reduction of timber.
Understory burning also helps to maintain soil health by allowing sun and moisture to soak in more effectively while releasing nutrients into the ground, Norman said.
Alternatives to open burning exist Norman said, like using woody materials for biomass fuel plants. But, many times the material is located too far away for transport and is not “clean” enough for the process.
Air pollution is a minimal factor, compared to pollution from vehicles or catastrophic wildfires, Norman said.
Public comment will accepted by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit until Feb. 20.
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