Editorial: Fresh approaches needed for removing forest fuels
It’s an objective few would find fault with: Removing debris and overgrowth from forests in the Lake Tahoe Basin to reduce the severity of wildfires.
How to accomplish that goal is where things get contentious.
The debate dates back a decade or more. Each fall the U.S. Forest Service begins reducing the so-called “forest fuels” through prescribed burns (also known as controlled burns). And each fall the burns spark complaints about the harmful impacts of the smoke the burns produce.
Forest Service officials contend that prescribed burns are the best way to clear tons of debris from remote, roadless terrain.
“In these all-too-common remote areas, handwork followed by pile burning is efficient, quick and least expensive,” said Rex Norman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
And acknowledging that some people are sensitive to the smoke, the forest service burns on days when winds carry the smoke up and out of the basin, minimizing health impacts, Norman said.
Zephyr Cove dentist Jack Harrington, who for years has criticized the burns, is among those who disagree with the Forest Service.
In a letter to the editor in today’s Opinion section, Harrington says: “Am I to conclude from this statement that because something ‘is quick and least expensive’ that it is OK, despite the negative impact on human beings? If so, why not just dump our sewage into Lake Tahoe, since that would certainly be quick and less expensive than pumping it out of the basin?”
Aside from potential health impacts, prescribed burns have other shortcomings. The devastating Angora fire this summer increased the urgency for clearing out excess forest fuels. But the number of days prescribed burns can be conducted is limited by weather conditions and air quality regulations.
In addition, forest fuels gathered up into “hand piles” in many cases must sit and dry for at least a year before they’re ready to burn.
And although safety must be our top concern, the timing of the burns is another irritant.
Just when Tahoe residents are looking forward to enjoying crisp fall days outdoors without summer or winter tourist crowds, the basin is covered with haze from prescribed burns – and the the more sensitive of us suffer stinging eyes and burning lungs.
With all that in mind, we are disappointed the Forest Service is not making more effort to develop new or improved non-burning methods to reduce forest fuels.
Admittedly, clearing areas deep within the forest may require burns, as hauling debris out over miles and miles wouldn’t be feasible.
Yet forest service officials tell us their current emphasis is reducing fuels in the “wildland urban interface,” areas where homes or other structures abut the forest. These zones are by definition near developed areas – presumably not far from roads – and taking fuels out rather than burning them would seem to be an option.
Another alternative to burning is increasing the use of chippers, machines that chop up forest debris and spread it so it burns at lower intensity during a wildfire.
An added incentive for carting debris out of the forest is the growing demand for “biomass,” woody material burned to produce energy.
For example, an $8-million wood-fueled plant providing electricity, heat and hot water to Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City began running last month, amid questions whether the facility could find enough fuel to continue operating.
The Angora fire has already spurred innovation, as seen by the specialized equipment being tested for its ability to clear fuels along Heavenly Valley Creek without disrupting the sensitive stream zone.
We would like to see that kind of innovation further applied to reducing forest fuels, so that prescribed burns can be discontinued or at least used less often.