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Forester’s aim is to prevent fires

Paul Raymore
Colin FisherTahoe Donner crews remove brush from a common area in the subdivision in August. Fire protection agencies have heralded forest thinning efforts such as these as the reason the Donner Fire did not spread to residences.
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Bill Houdyschell’s job is to reduce the chance that a forest fire, such as the recent Donner Fire, will threaten homes in the Tahoe Donner subdivision. Since 1993, Houdyschell has been the Tahoe Donner Forester, supervising programs designed to manage the fire threat to area homes while at the same time maintaining a healthy forest.

The devastating Donner Ridge Fire of 1960, which burned from the Donner Lake interchange through what is now Tahoe Donner, taught area residents the need to manage the fire risk that is inherent from the freeway.

Since most large fires in the West burn from southwest to the northeast, the Tahoe Donner subdivision was especially concerned, and Houdyschell was hired in 1993 to help manage the wildfire risk facing the area.

“Our ultimate goal is to help reduce the effects of a catastrophic wildfire and to keep a healthy forest,” Houdyschell said of Tahoe Donner’s forestry program.

Houdyschell’s computer-aided fuels reduction plan aimed to reduce the brush fields left by the Donner Ridge Fire that can allow wildfires to spread more quickly. Equally important to Houdyschell is re-establishing a natural forest environment containing mature trees, which are more fire resistant.

Research has shown that fires move through brush fields four times more quickly than through mature forests – a frightening thought to firefighters who might find themselves in front of a wind-driven forest fire.

Houdyschell and firefighters alike were pleased that the Tahoe Donner fuels reduction program helped firefighters manage the recent Donner Fire, that burned up the hill from the Vista Point offramp to the ridge near Skislope Way. Fire crews were able to fully contain the fire once it reached the Tahoe Donner fuel break, before it threatened any homes in the area.

Houdyschell said the fuels reduction program “made the fire crews feel safe to go out there and do their job” in fighting the Donner Fire.

The fuels reduction program consists of four main components that Houdyschell and his team of 10 to 12 seasonal employees carry out:

— Thinning out smaller trees from large timber stands within Tahoe Donner and on the hillside between the subdivision and the freeway.

— Going through the area with machines that chip all the brush and shrubs on the ground and then blow the chips back onto the ground where the material poses a lessened fire risk.

— Using bulldozers to clear brush from fire-prone areas and then burning it in a controlled manner during burn season.

— Working with Tahoe Donner homeowners to help them make their own properties as fire safe as possible with programs such as free chipping of brush and other yard waste that may pose a fire danger, free fire safety assessments and the enforcement of fire safety codes as they pertain to vacant lots that are adjacent to area homes.

Houdyschell emphasizes that in implementing the fuels reduction program’s objectives, he tries to make the changes to the landscape “as natural as possible and as aesthetically pleasing as possible,” while also taking into account the need for pockets of brush to be left for deer and other wildlife use. Often, after brush is cleared from a location, foresters go back through the area planting tree seedlings with hopes of re-establishing a forest in the area.

For the last six years, the Tahoe Donner forestry program has operated with an annual budget of approximately $500,000, all of which is paid for by property owners in the subdivision. In addition, the forestry department has recently received two grants from the California Department of Forestry for fire suppression projects in areas that border government owned lands.

Houdyschell hopes that the recent Donner Fire will spur area residents to evaluate their own property for potential fire risks. “If everyone does their part, we’re going to be in pretty good shape,” Houdyschell said. He worries, however, that the Donner Fire happened too late in the season to motivate homeowners to go out and clear brush from their properties.

The difficulty with all of the fire suppression measures in an environment such as the Truckee area is that brush tends to grow back much faster than a forest does. According to Houdyschell, five to 10 years after it is cut down, species such as snowbush, manzanita and mountain whitethorn often grow back as dense as it was before.

Compare that timeline with the fact that trees planted in 1992 are now approximately 8 feet tall and it appears Houdyschell and his crews still have a lot of work ahead of them if they are to protect Tahoe Donner from future wildfires.


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