Smoked out: Incline residents affected by local burn
November 18, 2008
INCLINE VILLAGE “-A turn in the weather drove some homeowners to leave Incline Village early this month after a controlled burn by the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.
The burn started on Nov. 3 in the area of State Highway 431 near Fairview Boulevard, Champagne and Burgundy Roads. The land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, who contracted the Fire District to burn curing piles on the property.
Residents say smoke from the fires made living in the area difficult, driving some homeowners to leave town while smoke pushed into their neighborhood.
“We were gone five or six days to a hotel it was so bad,” said Neal Franking, who lives on the 700 block of Champagne. “Smoke from the hillside was channeling through our neighborhood, it got to the point where we were putting duct tape over the doors to keep the smoke out.”
A number of his neighbors left town, Franking said.
Franking’s neighbor on Champagne, Donna Davis, said the smoke was getting into her home.
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“It was bad, we didn’t leave even though we probably should have, though,” Davis said.
Norb Szczurek, fuels division chief for the fire district said the accumulation of smoke in the area was caused by a changing weather pattern during the time of the burn.
“On the third it looked perfect to burn ” snow was down on the ground, which is the best condition for a burn ” but on the fourth, the weather changed, and there’s nothing you can do about Mother Nature.”
Szczurek said that as the area warmed and dried, it created conditions where the smoke from the roughly 50-acre burn drifted down slope at night ” right into the Champagne area. When the area warmed again during the day, Szczurek said, the inversion lifted and the smoke traveled back up the hill.
He also pointed to fuels which release heavy smoke as another culprit.
The type of smoke from these fires aren’t a medical concern, Szczurek said, as wood smoke inhalation isn’t dangerous.
By Nov. 6, Chief Mike Brown said the District began taking action to mitigate the smoke traveling into the neighborhood. Szczurek said the first order of business was to burn large piles of smoldering vegetation to eliminate some of those heavy smoke producers. Fire crews used drip torches to burn out the fuels.
“On the tenth we put in a call to the Weather Service and saw their forecast called for a long range warming and drying trend,” Szczurek said. “So we stepped up the mitigation work because we’re definitely sensitive to the impacts on the Thanksgiving holiday.”
The steps to mitigate the smoke were laid out in a plan put together for the prescription ahead of time, which takes into account community impact and weather changes, Szczurek said.
Such plans are laid out for every prescription burn.
Another overriding concern, both Brown and Szczurek said, were the smoke impacts on the Mt. Rose Highway.
Szczurek said that as smoke spilled onto the highway, visibility was limited to just within the safest parameters possible.
“We had to move some of our burn signs closer to the road so people had a heads up to drive slow and had to place some flare patterns because the smoke became heavy,” Szczurek said.
In the future, Szczurek said, the Fire District will view this burn as a learning experience.
“With every burn we do we learn something new,” Szczurek said. “We’ll still have the same area to burn in the future but we’ll look to burn it on a smaller scale daily than the whole 50 acres. The day we burned, though, conditions were perfect, you just have to change your plans when the forecast isn’t exactly right.”
While Brown said the Fire District is sensitive to area residents during burns, they are important to the safety of area residents.
“We are very apologetic and sympathetic to these people,” Brown said. “But this is work we’ve got to get done. These are impacts we feel we can absorb.”
Officials from the District went to meet with area residents after the smoke entered the neighborhoods, Brown said, and are more than happy to explain the mitigation work done in the area.
While Franking said he was contacted by the Fire District, he would have liked a heads up that this was a possibility leading up to the burn.