Fire and ice: Burn piles blaze through the winter | SierraSun.com

Fire and ice: Burn piles blaze through the winter

Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

Ryan Salm/Sierra SunA prescribed pile burn is conducted in Burton Creek State Park above Rocky Ridge in Tahoe City on Wednesday.

Low snowpack and sunny skies have kept local forestry crews busy this winter burning slash from forest-thinning projects around the Tahoe Basin.

With the right conditions, winter is a great time to burn piles of thinned trees and vegetation, said Rex Norman, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

For California State Parks foresters, the winter is a good time to get a jump on prescribed burn projects usually held for the spring, if the weather cooperates.

“We try to do some burning [in the winter]. It’s better than not doing any at all,” said Rich Adams, California State Parks Sierra District Forester.

The Forest Service conducted a burn last weekend and is planning for more pile burns in the next week or so, Norman said.

Prescribed burns are best started right before an approaching storm, Norman said, because the unstable air helps to lift up and carry away smoke from the burn area.

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But California State Parks has been pile burning around the North Shore throughout the last week even in the calm weather.

Chanse Hunwardsen, a Nevada Division of Forestry captain, said too much snow can make controlled burning nearly impossible, but pile burning is possible in less than two feet of snow.

Hunwardsen supervised the burns at Burton Creek State Park near Tahoe City this week and said the absence of wind was a concern, but that they were not waiting for an approaching storm to burn the 60 or so piles cleared Wednesday.

“Today I’m concerned with this smoke rising up and settling in Tahoe City,” Hunwardsen said Wednesday.

The burn piles consist of material gathered in the summer and fall and are covered with a special brown wax paper that keeps moisture from collecting inside. Using a kerosene drip torch, crews light the paper to ignite the dry pile.

Most forests do more winter burning than the basin does, Norman says, because the Tahoe area has a large number of homes, strict regulations and its bowl-shape tends to make smoke linger.

Springtime usually has the best burn conditions because the season offers more opportunities for unstable and dry air, low humidity levels and, generally, better access to the burn areas, Norman said.

Previously, Norman said the Forest Service would be pleased after treating 1,000 acres in a year, but with the recent implementation of a full-time fuels reduction program, new funding sources and year-long burning, they have ramped-up forest thinning and prescribed burn efforts.

“Our intention is to continue with a program of 4,000 acres or more of treatment each year,” Norman said.