Smoke clogs basin |

Smoke clogs basin

Chris Wellhausen/Tahoe Daily TribuneSmoke from a 90-acre prescribed burn sits in the basin, where a storm had been predicted.

One woman called and wanted to know if she should evacuate Lake Tahoe Basin because of the fire.

Dispatchers told her it wasn’t a wildfire — it was a controlled burn, 90-acres worth of piled wood being burned south of Pioneer Trail.

The burning became a problem because unsettled weather predicted by forecasters never arrived to move the smoke out of the basin.

As a result, cold air trapped the smoke at South Shore all weekend, leaving everything bathed in a fiery smell. At night, the layer of the smoke thickened as it settled closer to the ground and made the city look like a coastal town on a foggy night.

“Sometimes weather doesn’t cooperate and makes it difficult for everybody,” said Kit Bailey, Forest Service fire management officer. “It’s an unfortunate incident. Hopefully it will only last for the short term. With the weather forecast, it should get it all out of here in the next day or two.”

The burn piles, on Forest Service land between Oneidas Street and Columbine Trail, were lighted Friday morning. Burn work that day had been approved by the California Air Resources Control Board, Bailey said.

“What they saw was a potential of some snow or at least some winds,” Bailey said. “Weather good for smoke dissemination.”

Forest Service crews began to extinguish the burn piles Saturday morning after the colder air, called an inversion, put a lid on the basin.

The smoke created a lot of questions, but didn’t send anyone with allergies or respiratory problems to seek emergency medical attention, according to the dispatch center at the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.

Barton Memorial Hospital reported no one coming in complaining of smoke-related ailments.

Dispatch received about 40 calls from residents on Friday and more than a dozen on Saturday and Sunday. One of the calls was related to a smoke alarm on Hekpa Drive activated by smoke produced by the burn.

“We’ve gotten tons,” dispatcher Kory Rodriguez said of the callers. “They’re concerned there may be an out-of-control fire. We just tell them it’s a controlled burn and that we’re a separate entity (from the Forest Service).”

South Lake Tahoe fire Capt. Brad Piazzo said in his 18 years at the department he can’t remember an incident like this one.

“I’ve never seen something that thick due to a controlled burn,” Piazzo said. “It usually results from a wild land fire.”

The Forest Service began controlled burns the third week in October. Since then, the agency has burned 700 of the 2,000 acres of dead wood piled around the basin. The burning will continue until heavy snow falls.

“We’re going to do our best this doesn’t happen again,” Bailey said. “We’ve been doing our best all along. When weather doesn’t cooperate, there’s nothing we can do. Burning takes a lot of coordination of personnel and equipment. It’s not just ‘Let’s go out and burn today.'”

To reach a recording that reports the location of burn sites, call (530) 573-2707.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at

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