Start of prescribed burn season sparks debate over smoke impacts on residents
Tahoe resident Jack Harrington has been railing for years about the adverse effects of smoke from prescribed burns in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“This is no more acceptable than to allow someone to blow smoke in my face in a restaurant or airplane,” Harrington wrote in a letter to the Tribune in 1999, a time when prescribed burns were planned next to Zephyr Cove Elementary School, where his children were attending school. Harrington’s children grew up suffering from asthma, and potential health impacts have been his main reason for objecting to the prescribed burns.
Flash forward to the present day, when the Forest Service has started up its prescribed burn program for the fall — a series of fires intentionally set to remove forest debris that could serve as fuel for a future wildfire. The prescribed burns follow the summer’s devestating Angora fire that destroyed 254 homes and 3,072 acres on the South Shore.
The Angora fire made it clear that a catastrophic wildfire in the basin is more than just a concept. But Harrington hasn’t changed his views on prescribed burns.
“You people are doing something that is truly a health hazard,” Harrington said last month. “It’s an irritant to your lungs. … I know it makes my kids sick; it makes me sick.”
Harrington is calling for alternatives to prescribed burns for removing forest debris. In particular, he likes the idea of chipping the debris instead.
But Forest Service officials contend that when it comes to clearing tons of waste from remote, roadless terrain, prescribed burns are the way to go.
“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.
“At this time, there is no alternative than can replace the use of fire as an effective tool.”
At the same time, the Forest Service is aware of smoke impacts, and schedules the burns at times when wind will lift most of the smoke up and out of communities.
“There’s no doubt smoke can aggravate the condition for people with asthma,” Norman said. “We are not cavalier about the impact of smoke on communities — not one bit.”
Meanwhile, the Forest Service does use chipping in some cases as an alternative to prescribed burns. Chipping can only be used in areas where the mechanical equipment is allowed, Norman said, and although the chips will likely burn at lower intensity, they can produce flying embers that could spread a wildfire.
Politics of burning
Although prescribed burns often get a bad rap for their perceived smoke impacts, Norman said wood-burning stoves used by many Tahoe residents are a more serious problem.
“Local regulatory agencies as well as advocacy groups point to pile burning smoke as a ‘bad’ source for smoke, and often publically call for ending pile burning,” Norman said in an e-mail. “They do not address the far more serious negative effect and volume of residential wood burning stoves. Politically, it would be far more difficult to convince the public to give up their stoves.”