Program thins Tahoe Donner fire fuel | SierraSun.com

Program thins Tahoe Donner fire fuel

Alisha Wyman

Colin FisherWorkers in Tahoe Donner thin trees and brush as a preventative measure against fire.

As a forester, Bill Houdyschell knows sometimes you have to remove a bush or tree to have a healthy forest grow.

With a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the forestry program in Tahoe Donner is clearing out brush and tree limbs from the forests in the common land of a section of the area. They’re also working on projects on associated property within the subdivision. Next year, they will plant trees in the areas they cleared.

The goals of the program are twofold: to lessen the affect of forest fires and to maintain forest health.

“We’re just not willie nillie going through and killing things,” said Bill Houdyschell, the forester for the Tahoe Donner Association. “We really do have a plan.”

Fire burns three to four times faster in a brush field than a forest. This is why they are seeking to reestablish the forest in Tahoe Donner, Houdyschell said. They accomplish this by cutting the brush in a mosaic pattern, clearing out low tree branches, spacing out trees and replanting.

When they have cleared an area, they grind the brush into wood chips and use it and pine needles to cover the area and protect the soil. In many places they have left the roots of the brush so the plants will grow back, Houdyschell said.

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“You look at it and it looks like hell, but it’s really mimicking what natural fires would do anyway,” he said.

It also protects homes and reduces the impact of fires.

“What we’re trying to do is get rid of the fire ladder,” he said. Fire starts burning at the ground level with pine needles. From there it burns brush and then lower tree limbs until entire trees are on fire. The most serious fires travel by jumping from tree to tree, and ultimately to homes.

The key to understanding the logic behind the brush clearing is to understand the life cycles of trees, Houdyschell said. A human’s life is much shorter than the average 250 to 300- year life span of a tree. It’s difficult for people to visualize what the forest will look like in the long-term, or even five to 10 years, after the brush is cleared, he said.

“A forester has a different eye than everyone else,” he said.

Aside from preventing fires, clearing out brush opens up space for wildflowers and grasses that have been stifled.

“There will be more here next year than there ever has been before,” Houdyschell said. “…You’ll start to see wildflowers that you didn’t think existed anymore, and now they’re back in the environment.”

The program in Tahoe Donner based many of its strategies on the Donner Ridge Fire, which burned almost 45,000 acres in 1960. The previous property owner in the area removed dead or dying trees but did not make any further effort to reestablish the forest, Houdyschell said. As a result, the brush became overgrown, all the roads were badly eroded and the area was once again prone to fire.

The forest project seeks to reestablish forest to what it was before the Donner Ridge Fire, Houdyschell said. In 1994, they began the program and devised a strategy to best defend Tahoe Donner homes. They began clearing the southern boarders of the subdivision first, because fires burn in a northeastern direction due to the prevailing southwest wind. Tahoe Donner is divided into units, and workers have now reached unit 6, the northernmost area in Tahoe Donner.

But the work will not end after unit 6. Once they finish up the other areas they have missed, they must go back and start again. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” Houdyschell said.