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Thousands of slash piles could help to ignite future wildfires

Adam Jensen

After 60 acres of U.S. Forest Service slash piles helped fuel the Angora fire, concerns are now being raised about the thousands of acres of the heaps remaining in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

While piles are typically dried between 18 and 24 months, the unburned piles in the Angora fire burn area had been drying since “late 2004,” according to Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman. Slash piles are forest waste material that are manually put into heaps. They consist mostly of tree limbs, stumps and branches.

This nearly three-year drying time highlights a backlog of unburned piles from Forest Service fuel treatment projects throughout the basin.

“One of the side effects that you have of increasing fuels reduction treatments is you are going to create a lot of piles,” Norman said on Tuesday.

Between 2,600 and 3,000 acres of slash heaps remain, with some acreage containing as many as 75 slash piles.

Many of the heaps look similar to the dozens of slash piles lining the street leading to Kim Felton’s Kingsbury Grade home. Her house is also bordered by piles on two sides.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Felton. “It’s great to get these things thinned, but it’s not going to help us if a fire comes up the Kingsbury Grade.”

Key to getting the piles burned is obtaining permission from county officials — and that’s highly weather dependent. Burning is relegated to times when unstable air masses can lift burn smoke out of the basin.

El Dorado County air quality managers take direction from California officials, but have the authority to let Forest Service officials burn even when the air quality is rated “marginal,” according to Marcella McTaggart, El Dorado County air pollution control officer. The rating prevents private pile-burning.

The Forest Service permits an average of 84 burn days per year, but can see as few as 30 annually, Norman said.

Thirteen days have been approved for prescribed burning since April, according to the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Web site, but it is unlikely any more prescribed burns will be conducted until the fall because of this summer’s hot and dry conditions, Norman explained.

“Are we doing anything to increase the elimination of piles?” Norman asked rhetorically in an e-mail on Tuesday. “Yes, in particular, increasing the use of contract crews — increased use of mastication and chipping, and increasing efforts to create partnerships with counties for biomass uses.”

A South Shore fuels reduction project is being developed by the agency. Treatments, including prescribed burns, are planned for 12,500 acres of forest near homes at the South Shore.

“It’s a good and bad sign. Seeing no work done is worse,” said Joe McAvoy, a battalion chief with the Lake Valley Fire Protection District who lost his home on Elk Point Road, near the 60 acres of unburned slash piles. “I’d like to see them be able to burn (piles) in a more timely manner, but I have no ill will toward (the Forest Service).”


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