Wet weather douses fire season | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Wet weather douses fire season

Patrick McCartney

The Tahoe Basin fire season ended with more acres burned on purpose than by accident, forest managers said Tuesday.

California forestry officials credited mild summer weather for the low amount of California forest that burned during the 1997 fire season.

In the season that officially concluded one week ago, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported just 53,779 acres of forest burned in the state’s 21 ranger units.

The total is a third of the average over the last five years.

The number of wildfires was off in the Tahoe Basin as well, with just 40 small fires that consumed between 15 and 20 acres, according to Mark Johnson, fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

The number of basin fires was 30 percent fewer than usual, and the acreage was half of the long-term average, with sizes ranging from numerous spot fires to a 4-acre fire off Kingsbury Grade.

In a pattern that officials hope will continue, forest managers burned far more acreage deliberately this season than was threatened by uncontrolled fires.

In all, three agencies burned 800 acres of the basin’s 205,000 acres of forest, including 425 acres of understory.

The Forest Service conducted 600 acres of prescribed fire, including 250 acres of understory burns and 350 acres of slash piles.

California State Parks supervised 145 acres of fires on land they manage, with all but 20 acres understory burns.

And in the Incline Village greenbelts, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District set fire to 54 acres in six locations as part of its long-term plan to use controlled fire to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

In a sense, basin forestry managers are in a race with nature, using fire to create healthier conditions before a wildfire sweeps through an aging, overstocked forest, Johnson said.

“As the stands continue to deteriorate, the likelihood of fires getting bigger is growing larger,” Johnson said. “We’re changing the character of the fuel in the area, so it will not support the type of fire we’re most concerned with.”

The idea is to restore the Lake Tahoe forest to pre-European conditions, when frequent fires swept through the area, reducing ground fuel and thinning the forest to just a fraction of its current density.

As the basin’s forests were clear-cut to satisfy the demand of the Comstock Lode mines, modern fire suppression followed. The result is a 130-year-old forest 10 times or more dense than the earlier forest, with a greater mix of firs than pine trees.

Right now, forest managers are slowly creating buffer zones around Lake Tahoe’s urban areas. In the future, they may allow fires outside the urban boundaries to burn on their own, protecting only developed areas.

That may not be welcomed by some residents, who have been bothered by smoke billowing from controlled burns.

“The smoke was horrible,” said Melissa Odline of Meyers, when smoke from slash burns near Pioneer Trail forced her to put wet towels under the door. “What’s it doing to our health?”

Johnson advised residents to keep their windows closed in the morning during a prescribed burn, when smoke tends to cling to the ground. Agencies are limited to setting prescribed burns on days with sufficient air circulation.

“Hopefully, we will have the willingness of people in the Tahoe Basin to put up with periods of nuisance smoke,” Johnson said.

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