Timber cruisers try to keep the region cool | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Timber cruisers try to keep the region cool

The thud from a pine rocked the ground. Members of the newly formed hand crew looked dirty, tired and satisfied on a dry summer day in the Sierra.

The 20-person crew operated large chain saws, toppling trees alongside Pioneer Trail as part of a fire fuel reduction program.

“Timber cruisers” – specialists from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit – have already examined the land and marked trees that need to be cut down. The goal is to make the forest more roomy and healthy, which will mean a safer forest if something or someone sparks a wildland fire.

The crew, comprised of 18 men and two women, plans to pick its way through 40 acres along Pioneer, then thin areas near Ski Run Boulevard and Al Tahoe Boulevard.

The wood left behind will be chipped, sold as firewood or burned come weather that’s suitable for prescribed burning.

The work of this crew is not limited to South Shore. As part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Unit, they could be found reducing fuels and fighting fires anywhere in the basin.

Since they formed in May, they’ve worked 19 fires, 14 of which have been in the basin. Being a hand crew means often battling fires with chain saws and shovels. Those tools help them carve out tree roots and reach mineral soil, which can be a deep as 3 feet. A good layer of mineral soil can act as a fire line or a strip of earth meant to contain a raging wildland fire.

On July 9, the crew got called out at midnight to battle fires in Klamath National Forest in northern California. They were packed and on the road by 5 a.m. Lightning strikes sparked 45 fires in the forest. Steve Burns, a captain with the U.S. Forest Service and leader of the hand crew, said his team was called on because they have the capability to split into squads and battle several different fires at once.

They spent six nights at Klamath, eating bagged rations and camping on a 45-degree hillside.

“It’s the closest job to the military,” Burns said. “We don’t have people shoot at us, but it can be just as dangerous. One of the highest fatality jobs around is firefighting. That’s why we have 10 Standard Fire Orders. Everyone of those orders is because something happened.”

The first order states: “Fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first.”

This crew is an upstart that’s expected to keep busy until November. Money to pay their hourly salaries, which range from $9.50 to $11 an hour, comes from the federal government’s National Fire Plan. Its budget expanded after last year’s busy and dangerous fire season.

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