Taming Truckee’s fire danger
Gary Roller is looking forward to the day he can sit down at his computer and begin setting theoretical forest fires.
Roller, a researcher with the University of California at Berkeley, has spent the last two summers counting trees, shrubs and dead wood in the Sagehen watershed north of Truckee. Once his research team has recorded all of the fire fuel in the 7,000-acre basin, Roller will enter it into a new computer program called FARSITE and begin playing with fire.
A few runs of the computer program will give researchers the first comprehensive look into fire behavior in the basin. The model, using the fuel data gathered by Roller’s team, will demonstrate where and at what speed wildfires will burn in the basin. It will also show how thinning trees in specific areas and initiating prescribed burns can slow a forest fire and prevent it from reaching the tree canopy. Forest managers will be able to use the technology to map out exact locations that need thinning or prescribed burns, changing an old model that called for widespread thinning.
This model, referred to by the forest service as strategically placed area treatments (SPLATs), promises to be an effective, affordable and efficient new means of managing forests, officials say. And forest officials from the West all the way to Washington, D.C., are watching the progress of the Sagehen basin research, which has been designated a national pilot program.
“Our Washington office thought this [project] would be a great one to keep an eye on,” said Truckee District Ranger Joanne Robique.
The forest service’s old methods of thinning large tracts of forest land to reduce the chance of a catastrophic wildfire was both time-consuming and expensive, said Robique.
“We don’t have the budget to go in and thin all the overstocked timber,” Robique said.
The new model of treating specific spots that will put the brakes on a potentially catastrophic forest fire, allowing fire crews to come in and contain the blaze, is much more affordable strategy, she said.
“It causes the fire to drop to the floor, reduces the flame length and slows the spread of the fire,” Robique said.
The main goal of the treatments is to eliminate the possibility of a crown fire because once flames reach the tree canopy, firefighters lose control of the blaze.
“It’s pretty much impossible to put out a crown fire without a change in the weather,” Roller said.
Managing a forest so that the risk of a crown fires is minimal is a challenge in a basin that has young trees and shrubs mixed in with older tree groves, creating a classic example of ladder fuel.
This pinpointed strategy will also offset fuel reduction with habitat preservation, as SPLAT zones will be balanced with protected activity centers, or areas that are crucial habitat for sensitive plants and animals.
Researchers chose the Sagehen area because the basin has a varied mix of tree types and uneven terrain.
They also picked it because it has the potential to go up in flames.
“There is a huge fire hazard here,” Roller said.
Previous fire research has tackled simple, unvaried landscapes. But Sagehen’s mix of vegetation and uneven topography makes fire behavior that much more difficult to predict.
“All the simulations that have been run … have been on flat ground and in homogenous forests,” Roller said.
This, along with the fact that Roller and his team are tackling an entire watershed rather than a fraction of a forest, makes the Sagehen project a very valuable blueprint for the mountainous landscapes up and down the eastern Sierra.
“It represents the east slope of the Sierra very well,” Roller said.
And example of a treated area altering the behavior of a forest fire came in the 1994 Crystal Fire, which started near Stampede Reservoir and spread all the way to Verdi, Nev. That fire ran into a section of forest that had been thinned for an unrelated purpose, said Robique, and the flames dropped to the forest floor and began creeping, rather than racing, eastward.
“When the fire got to the area that had been thinned, it dropped to the forest floor and slowed down,” Robique said. “People that were out there could see the difference.”
That result is specifically what SPLATs are intended to do and what the computer model is expected to predict.
“It will not stop forest fires,” Robique. said “What it will do is change their behavior.”
The forest service expects to hold public meetings on their program in the Sagehen basin this summer, and an environmental report will be circulated and completed before the agency will begin implementing the program.
Roller’s research is only the first phase of what may turn out to be a 10-year effort to better manage forests against fire threats, said Jeff Brown, who manages the research station at Sagehen.
“This is what we think of as phase one,” said Brown. “We’re hoping that phase two will be actual implementation of the research.”
All indications point to a new, effective fire strategy being developed out of the Sagehen studies, officials say. And if the program works here, you will likely see similar work throughout the Sierra.
“I think that the other forests will be more interested when the actual implementation begins,” Roller said.