New method tested for reducing fire hazard around stream zones
In an effort to reduce the amount of fuel for wildfires near streams in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the U.S. Forest Service has started testing specialized equipment for removing vegetation in an area along Heavenly Valley Creek.
The project, encompassing about 20 acres near the intersection of Al Tahoe Boulevard and Pioneer Trail, is significant because it is the first area near a stream in the basin to see the major use of specialized vehicles to cut and process trees.
“It’s to show that we can treat these stream zones with (mitigable) impact,” said Dave Marlow, vegetation, fire and fuels staff officer for the forest service, at the project site on Tuesday.
Because of potential impacts to water quality, fuels reduction efforts near streams in the basin have typically been limited to handheld equipment or over-the-snow mechanical operations. The use of mechanical equipment has been avoided because of its potential to muddy streams and ultimately reduce the clarity of Lake Tahoe.
The machinery being used in the test is equipped with a long arm used to remove trees so that the machine doesn’t need to move too close to the stream.
If the demonstration project shows minimal environmental impact, the use of mechanical means to reduce fuels in the basin may become more widespread.
“I think we’re just hopeful that we can do these projects and not have increased sediment loading. It looks like it’s possible,” Lauri Kemper, supervising engineer with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Tuesday. “We’re hopeful that this is something they’ll be able to use on an even bigger scale.”
Mechanical means could provide more cost-effective fuels treatment for stream zones, but soil compaction and the creation of bare soil are two of the major concerns that could affect water quality when working with mechanical equipment in these areas, according to Theresa Loupe, hydrologist with the forest service.
The Heavenly Valley Creek project was approved as a demonstration largely because its use of advanced equipment is expected to decrease the impacts to the typically sensitive land surrounding riparian areas.
Data about the environmental effects of the treatments at the demonstration site have been collected since the start of the project and are expected to be compiled by this winter, according to Loupe.
Mechanized treatment is a major component of a planned South Shore Fuels Reduction project, which is in the midst of a required National Environmental Protection Act review process, according to Rex Norman, spokesman for the forest service.
“That whole project is going to rely on the results of (the Heavenly Valley Creek) project,” Kemper said.
Out of approximately 12,000 acres slated for fuels reduction under the South Shore project, 6,000 acres are likely to be treated using mechanical means, including 1,000 acres in stream zones.
The demonstration project at Heavenly Valley Creek is expected to last about two more weeks.
Basin agencies will be keeping a close eye on the results of the project because of the influence it may have on future fuel reduction efforts in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“We’re very supportive of the demonstration project,” said Rochelle Nason, executive director of League to Save Lake Tahoe, an environmental advocacy group aimed at restoring the clarity of Lake Tahoe. “Stream zones play an essential filtering role in the watershed of Lake Tahoe. The forest service needs to undertake major stream zone restoration if we are going to protect the area from fire while restoring the lakes quality. We intend to be scrutinizing this project very closely. It’s very important.”