Want to reduce wildfire risk in Tahoe region? Experts say let it burn
Create defensible space, don’t let pine needles accumulate on the roof, and always have a evacuation bag prepared.
Reminders not to become complacent are everywhere as Wildfire Awareness Month wraps up and residents remember the Angora Fire, but there’s another important strategy forest managers have up their sleeves, and would like to do more of — using controlled, prescribed fires.
It’s well known in the forestry community that fire is an essential part of a healthy forest, but in areas like Truckee where people are increasingly building homes in wildfire-prone areas, those fires aren’t able to burn.
“We should be burning about 12,000 acres a year,” said U.S. Forest Service Truckee Ranger District Fuels Specialist Linda Ferguson. “I burned 300 acres this spring, and we were super excited. We are so far behind the power curve that it’s an impossible thought to even try and keep up. I’m never going to meet that 12,000 acres a year, so I’m just trying to do what I can and burn as much as I can.”
Ferguson said there are many things preventing her team from burning all the acres they’d like to, such as resource availability, air quality concerns, and public perception.
“One day I would like people to think, ‘Wow, there’s smoke. I’m glad they’re managing the forests,’ instead of all the complaints I get,” she said. “There needs to be this switch of how the public thinks about it.”
Fire Isn’t All Bad
Fire has played a significant role in the Sierra’s forests for many years, but humans didn’t begin to understand that role until more recent decades. Now, Ferguson and others are trying to restore natural habitat and protect communities like Truckee from the threat of intense wildfire fueled by years of mismanaged forests.
“If you go back in history, fires in the area would burn between every seven and 15 years,” Ferguson said.
The fires would begin naturally and burn at low to moderate intensities, clearing the forest floor of debris like pine needles and brush — debris which we now know can fuel massive wildfires if too much of it accumulates.
Rather than everything burning the entire forest all at once, the naturally occurring, low-intensity fires would spark up in small patches at a time, and would end when they reached an area that had already burned in that seven to 15-year period. This, Ferguson said, created a mosaic pattern.
“Everything would burn within that 15 years, but just at different times,” she said.
The Truckee Ranger District, like many other divisions of the Forest Service, tries to mimic that pattern by gradually reintroducing small, controlled burns to the region.
“We’ve got an unnatural forest out there for a variety of reasons, and part of prescribed fire is we want to take it back to a more mosaic pattern in the forest,” said Forest Service Truckee Ranger District Spokeswoman Debby Broback.
Prescription to Burn
With a prescribed fire, the area has been planned years in advance. Ferguson creates a “burn plan,” which describes the area that she’d like to burn and what conditions there would need to be to implement a successful burn. The approval process for the plans takes years.
“The burn we did this year in the Dry Creek area, we started planning for that, we think around six years ago,” Broback said. “It’s not like we can just say, ‘Man, it’s a great day, let’s go burn out at Prosser.”
Everything from temperature, wind speed, and direction to whether or not certain species of wildlife are in the area gets analyzed. Experts in soils, water, and archaeology also survey the land before a prescribed burn is implemented.
The idea is for the land to burn in a controlled environment, rather than waiting for a fire to start on a day that it would be likely to grow out of control.
“We’d rather do prescribed fire on a cool spring day when the conditions are within our prescription,” Broback said. “That’s kind of what’s going on around the Sierra and almost all of the United States, sort of.”
For years, fire suppression sometimes called the “Smokey Bear Effect,” was the norm across the country. Wildfires were considered bad, and to be avoided at all costs even though they are a natural part of many ecosystems. This belief, paired with the financial interests of the timber industry, contributed to what are now overgrown and unhealthy forests.
“With fire suppression, the mosaic pattern has changed to just overstocked forests all over the place, and they can’t withstand drought, they can’t withstand bugs, they can’t withstand disease, and so they’re just ready to die,” Broback said.
Problem With Letting it All Grow
Overstocked forests are known to be drought intolerant because they contain too many plants and trees that are all competing for the same water. They’re also competing for sun and nutrients found in the soil, so when there are too many of them too close together they aren’t able to become healthy and strong. When trees are unhealthy, they’re more vulnerable to things like disease and beetle infestation.
“Once those trees start dying, all you’re doing is getting rid of the dead ones so they don’t fall on somebody — at that point it’s too late,” Broback said. “Around here, we’d really like to get ahead so we can get the forest where it’s tough enough to withstand that stuff.”
Bark beetles have killed more than 102 million trees in California since 2010, statistics show. They bore holes into unhealthy trees, and mate and lay eggs inside, killing the trees and creating more fuel for wildfire in the process. Healthy trees defend themselves by producing a resin that pushes the bugs out, but those weakened by drought and over-crowded forests are unable to fight back.
“When the Donner Party came through here their diaries talk about that the trees were so widely spaced that you could fit a wagon through them. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t even walk through some areas,” she said.
Since then, forests aren’t the only things that have grown. Average global temperatures have climbed (NASA reported that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2001); droughts and floods, though part of the natural weather cycle, have grown more extreme. The changes in climate, paired with the uncontrolled growth of fire fuel, have increased the likelihood of high-intensity wildfires and challenges that come with fighting the blazes.
“With the suppression of fire for over 100 years, it used to be there was a fire and it was low intensity, moderate intensity, we could bring fire crews there and start digging line and squirting water, and by gosh, we got it,” Broback said.
“But now, the fuels are so thick and the fuel ladder, horizontal and vertical, is just so thick, that if something starts here and it’s the wrong day — it’s windy, it’s dry, it just gets up and goes. And we can’t put people around it because if you put people out there it’s not safe … everything’s different now.”
Forest Is In Rehab
Broback said that the Forest Service, which is still under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has evolved over the years, moving from protecting trees for timber use to recognizing the importance of healthy forests.
“Our mission now is we shoot for ecological restoration,” she said. “We want to have a well spaced, not-overcrowded forest without a bunch of hazardous fuels so that if those bugs from the west side were to move over here, our trees have enough water and sunlight that they’re actually pretty healthy … and when a bug shows up and it can go in and it (the tree) will have enough pitch to push that bug back out.”
The bark beetle has impacted the West Shore of Lake Tahoe considerably, with both Placer and El Dorado counties declaring an emergency due to the number of dead trees. While the beetle hasn’t had as serious of an impact around Truckee, it remains a concern.
“We’re trying to get the forest where it can take care of itself. That’s the best way I can say it,” she said. “If a disease comes in it won’t take out everybody; it’ll just take out those select weakened trees and move on.”
But that’s easier said than done, since there are now lots of people residing in the same forests that Broback and others would like to see nursed back to health.
Even though public education about the importance of fire has improved, people are still uncertain about prescribed burning and mechanical fuel removal because of the minor inconveniences they create.
“Smoke is probably the biggest complaint, and unfortunately I haven’t figured out a way to do it without smoke,” Ferguson said. “I work very closely with the air quality district. They have a set of days that are either burn days or not burn days.”
The National Weather Service in Reno provides a specific forecast for her area, she said.
“If I’m burning to the north and I get a north wind, I’m probably going to say let’s not burn today,” she said. “But I have had forecasts where it says I had a west wind and I’m totally OK with a west wind, but what I actually got was a north wind.”
Ferguson said the other complaint that the Forest Service receives often is that people are worried the prescribed burns will get out of control. That’s why she tries to avoid burning around homes when able, and the Forest Service will instead use techniques, such as hand thinning and mastication to remove fuels in residential areas.
Broback said that residents also hesitate to use those clearing methods because they’re noisy and dusty. She and Ferguson both said that while attitudes have been improving, they’re still struggling with the residents who won’t allow them to do fuel mitigation because they view it as a nuisance.
“When we start saying what we would do, they say ‘Well, I don’t like that.’ … So we run out of things that we can do,” Broback said. “There’s nothing that we can do that isn’t noisy, smoky or dusty. But it’s a short-term inconvenience.”
That short-term inconvenience can go a long way in dealing with wildfire risk.
“We have the potential in Truckee to have a large, high-intensity fire just take out swaths of our forest, and as I tell people when they’re trying to do work out by my house, we’re trying to protect the forest but we’re also trying to protect our lifestyle,” Broback said.
“Right now, I walk off my deck and I walk into the forest and it’s refreshing, it’s cool, it’s shady, but if a high-intensity fire goes through there, I’ll be living next to something like the Angora Fire, and everybody in Truckee doesn’t want that. So, we want to get prescribed fire back into the forest so the forest can take care of itself, so the forest won’t turn into one of those big, roaring things.”