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Man fights for air quality

A Glenbrook resident is trying to lead a campaign to get the U.S. Forest Service to stop administering prescribed burns at Lake Tahoe.

Jack Harrington says the smoke in the air from the burns affects the breathing of two of his three children.

“It not only affects them when it’s going on but for months after,” Harrington said. “From what I’m hearing, it’s the same with people who have contacted me.”



Harrington has been pushing the Forest Service to stop its prescribed-burning practices in the basin. He has spoken with officials from the federal agency and says his next course of action may be a lawsuit. He’s been contacted by others who would support him in a class action.

Prescribed burning – whether burning piles of slash or administering a slow-moving under-story burn in open forest – is a means for the Forest Service to thin overly dense tree stands and remove dead fuels from the forest floor. Other basin agencies such as California State Parks and the Incline Village General Improvement District perform prescribed burns in the basin. However, the Forest Service, which manages nearly 80 percent of Tahoe’s land, administers most of the burns.



Harrington said that other alternatives – cutting down the trees by hand or with machines and recycling slash piles instead of burning them – should be used. He believes the Forest Service burns because it is less expensive.

“My intention is to get them to stop doing the burns,” he said. “There are other ways to handle these problems, and they burn simply out of economics.

“I liken it to smoking 10 or 20 years ago,” he added. “I can remember flying in an airplane and having someone light up a cigarette and blow the smoke in my face. That’s no longer acceptable. I think it’s no longer acceptable to do this just because it’s convenient.”

Mark Johnson, fire management officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, says the prescribed burning isn’t done only for economics. There are benefits that come with it that other treatments wouldn’t provide.

“There is no alternative to reintroducing fire into a fire-dependent ecosystem. That’s the concept some opponents of prescribed burning are unwilling to accept,” Johnson said. “The good science is telling us fire was a frequent visitor to this ecosystem. On a very limited scale, we’re trying to do that.”

Ongoing research has revealed that wildfires – mostly low- to moderate-intensity ones – historically moved through Tahoe forests every five to 15 years. For at least a century, fire has been suppressed, and now Tahoe forests are too dense, with 20 to 30 percent of the trees dead.

With the dead and dying trees and thick blankets of potentially hazardous fuels – branches, pine cones, needles and fallen trees – littering forest floors, basin forests are now likely susceptible to hazardous, high-intensity wildfires, which could damage property and endanger lives. Prescribed fire is supposed to reduce that risk.

Even wildlife habitats in the region are hurt by the lack of natural fire, Johnson said.

The Forest Service uses alternatives when it can, such as over-the-snow mechanical logging, but Johnson said the benefits of prescribed fires are necessary.

The Forest Service urges residents to call its “burn line” so the agency knows which residents are affected by the smoke. Then the agency notifies them when a burn may be going on in their areas so they can leave temporarily or keep their windows shut.

“We hope it will be over quickly,” he said. “We hope it will be just a few days of nuisance smoke for people who are sensitive to it.”

Harrington and more than seven others whom he has been in contact with consider it more than a nuisance.

“I’m coughing continuously (during the burns). Then you cough so much you start throwing up,” said Lawrence Kiger of South Lake Tahoe. “I will support (Harrington) in any way, even if we have to demonstrate in front of the Forest Service. I feel that strongly about it.

“There are a lot of people who just accept what (Forest Service officials) say,” he added. “Dr. Harrington and I don’t accept it.”


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