My Turn: bringing fire back safely for a healthy forest |

My Turn: bringing fire back safely for a healthy forest

Among the trappings of modern forestry, fire itself is one of the most important tools for reducing the threat of catastrophic fire and maintaining a healthy forest. But one drawback to using fire is smoke, and with it comes responsibilities that each member agency of the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team takes seriously. The way we use fire today significantly reduces the impact of smoke on the ecosystem and our daily lives.

Fire is as natural and integral to Tahoeand#8217;s forests as water, air, and soil. Historically at Lake Tahoe, natural fires occurred as often as every five years. With the suppression of fire throughout the last century, we are now challenged with thinning an unhealthy, overcrowded forest in order to repair the damage caused by eliminating this naturally occurring force of nature. Besides reducing hazardous fuels, fire fertilizes the soil, maintains species distribution, and thins competing brush and small trees which help spread insects and disease. For its many benefits, fire will continue to be used as a safe, economically-viable tool to reduce the threat of fire.

It is well-known that Tahoeand#8217;s earliest residents, the native Washoe, regularly used low-intensity fire to manage the resources of the land. Much as we do today, these early land stewards took advantage of the cool fall weather to set fires on the forest floor to increase forage areas. Prescribing fire to keep a forest healthy is a long-proven and sustainable way to create and maintain community fuel breaks.

The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team relies on various methods to create fuel breaks. Often, material can be chipped and spread across the forest floor to decompose; or transferred to a power plant where the material, called biomass, is burned for energy. More than 990 tons of biomass were utilized over the last year and a half by Lake Tahoe fire and land management agencies. However, the use of fire through pile burning is another important method to dispose of forest fuels. Creating small pyramids of downed logs and limbs for burning later enables fuel reduction crews to work in remote areas and also allows for efficient disposal of dead material even when it is near roads.

Pile burning is one tool that brings special considerations as well. Piles need to dry and cure before they can be burned, sometimes for up to 12 months. Fuel reduction experts must rely on pile burning as one method of protecting communities and restoring Lake Tahoeand#8217;s overstocked and unhealthy forests. The technology and efficiency of other methods are improving and the TFFT remains on the cutting edge of implementing safe alternatives. Although transportation costs and other limiting factors challenge other uses of forest fuels, the TFFT supports and continues to explore beneficial ways to eliminate accumulated debris and hazardous fuel.

Not only is fire useful and natural, it can also be effectively managed with proven techniques to reduce risk, nuisances and potential environmental impacts. Burn plans that include smoke management must be approved by health and air quality agencies. Notification plans include neighborhood meetings for larger burns to hear concerns and explain how and when burns will occur. Anyone with a serious health condition can contact their local fire agency for special notification and a Basin-wide contact list is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service for its burns.

Critical information for managing prescribed fire comes from weather and smoke management forecasting carried out by California and Nevada air quality agencies, the National Weather Service and the US Forest Service. Lake Tahoe fire agencies burn only on authorized days when forecasts indicate that smoke will rise in a column above Tahoeand#8217;s rim and disperse without settling in the Basin. Forecasting ensures the amount of residual smoke and carbon emissions is insignificant in comparison to the potential impact of a catastrophic wildfire. As unpleasant as it may be, this residual smoke has been part of Lake Tahoeand#8217;s pristine ecosystem for millennia.

In addition to other methods of forest restoration, prescribed fire will likely always be a part of what Lake Tahoe fire agencies do to maintain community protection and sustain a healthy forest. Alternatives to burning will not always exist, but the negative effects can be reduced or removed by implementing burn plans grounded in constantly improving science. Lake Tahoe and our communities deserve our best efforts and prescribed fire can safely protect the health of our residents, their property, and the lake.

Visit or call your local fire agency for more information.

Norb Szczurek is Incident Commander for the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team and Division Chief for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.

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