Prescribed burns to target forest floor
With next year’s fire season just over the horizon, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing to add a different type of prescribed burn to its repertoire this spring.
More than 3,000 acres of federal land in the basin were proposed for understory burns by the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit in January.
Understory burns are used in areas where pile burns already have been carried out and provide ecological benefits to a Sierra landscape adapted to periodic, low-intensity fires, according to Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman. Pile burns involve stacking excess woody material from a forested area and allowing it to dry before ignition, while understory burns involve fire moving across an entire area.
“These low, creeping fires move along the forest floor, clearing the heavy buildup of pine needles, small twigs and other forest debris,” Norman wrote in an e-mail. “This process results in significant ecosystem benefits, including the regeneration of understory native plants.”
The burns also produce smoke over a longer period of time than pile burns, to the chagrin of some basin residents.
“I’m not opposed to cleaning up the forest,” Zephyr Cove resident Jack Harrington, a longtime opponent of prescribed burns, said Friday. “My premise is there are ways of cleaning up the forest and not creating a health hazard.”
All prescribed burns include measures to minimize smoke impacts to neighborhoods, the Forest Service contends.
Prescribed fires are undertaken only when weather conditions will lift smoke from the basin and include contingency plans when weather unexpectedly changes, Norman added in the e-mail.
Basin environmental groups have gotten behind the proposal.
“The Lake Tahoe Basin forests are fire-dependent ecosystems, and therefore no fuels-reduction project is complete without the application of periodic understory burning,” representatives of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Area Sierra Club and Sierra Forest Legacy wrote to Forest Supervisor Terri Marceron in support of the project.
As proposed, the project will be considered a “categorical exemption” under the National Environmental Policy Act and will not need an Environmental Impact Statement before approval.
The project can be considered under such an exemption because it does not involve herbicides and does not require more than a mile of low-standard road construction, according to a Forest Service news statement.
January’s proposal includes understory burns expected to take place in relatively small sections over five to eight years.
“The largest stand that would be underburned at any given time and location would be approximately 100 acres,” according to the proposal.
Most of the work on the 888 acres of understory burns proposed at the South Shore will take place on Forest Service land near Pioneer Trail.
Understory burns also are planned near the northwestern end of Fallen Leaf Lake.
The deadline for submitting comments on the understory burn project is Wednesday, and the Forest Service hopes to begin understory burns this spring.
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