‘It’s a fire-dependent system’: State Parks makes use of prescribed burns

“If you’re not using fire, you’re not able to remove those surface fuels,” said Dan Shaw, natural resources chief for the California State Parks Sierra District on the reasoning for prescribed fires on state park lands. | Justin Scacco /

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Roughly seven years ago California State Parks crews burned 20 acres of land in Burton Creek State Park.

The prescribed burn was in a key area between downtown Tahoe City and North Tahoe High School, and the flames that burned the vegetation and fuel on the ground left the site and town better protected from the risk of catastrophic fire.

“This area is really key from a strategic point of view,” said Dan Shaw, natural resources chief for the California State Parks Sierra District.

Shaw helped lead a tour of the area on Monday, showing the differences in amount of vegetation and fire fuels on the ground from plots at Burton Creek State Park that were treated a few years ago, in 2015, and that haven’t been treated. In the case of the 20 acres burned in 2015, Shaw said it’s already time for the site to have a prescribed burn again, which could take place as early as this fall.

“If you’re not using fire, you’re not able to remove those surface fuels,” said Shaw on the reasoning for prescribed fires on state park lands. “And those surface fuels are really what drives a surface fire rate of spread. It can be a real source for ignitions … it also allows suppression crews to get in safely, your evacuation routes are going to be protected, and aerial drops as well. When the canopy is thinned out and you do a retardant drop, in a thinned area with sparse ground cover that can really help provide a barrier. There’s also tremendous ecological benefits.”

Burning increases nutrients in the soil, reduces problematic fungi that kill pine seedlings, promotes diversity and balance of native species, and allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, according to California State Parks. Prescribed burns also increase larger trees resiliency to wildfire, said Shaw, adding that trees will adapt following small fires by growing thicker bark.

“Having that disturbance back on the landscape can really accommodate that stand to the fire that’s going to come because fires are going to come across our land,” said Shaw. “It’s a fire-dependent system.”

Conditions in order to have a prescribed burn have to be ideal. From time of year, weather forecast, impact to the community or even finding a bear den on site, much can derail plans to have fire on the ground. Shaw said state parks utilizes information gleaned from 30 years of monitoring the area’s forests in order to decide when and where to prescribe a burn.

Once conditions are met, Burn Boss Dave Murray and his team go to work with torches and in roughly a day will be finished burning a 20-acre site like the one at Burton Creek State Park. Murray said the team then monitors the area for several days before mopping up.

“We let it cook down for three to four days,” said Murray. “We really don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by mopping up too soon … it’s a little art and science, for sure.”

Deputy Secretary for Forest and Wildland Resilience Jessica Morse was on hand as well and spoke to the importance of prescribed burns in the area and recent programs that help encourage prescribed burning such as insurance for burners if anything goes wrong. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also won’t charge anything in the event a prescribed burn gets out of hand. A claims fund has also been created in order to cover burners in the instance a structure is damaged during a prescribed bur.

“It’s important to make sure that our state land is not contributing to catastrophic fire,” said Morse.

For more information on California State Parks’ prescribe fire program, visit

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.