Thinning plan to produce biomass at Tahoe | SierraSun.com

Thinning plan to produce biomass at Tahoe

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

A high-priority forest thinning project on an 80-acre plot of land just above Dollar Hill may also play its part to bring the Tahoe Basin one step closer to biomass energy production this summer.

The North Tahoe Fire Protection District is moving forward with plans to treat 65 acres of the North Tahoe Public Utility District’s Firestone property, which sits between the Old County and Highlands neighborhoods just east of Tahoe City.

Because the Firestone property is adjacent to two prominent neighborhoods, it is the North Tahoe fire district’s second-highest priority for fuels reduction, as rated in their Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

“Our goal here is to not only create a fire-safe situation, but to leave a healthy functioning and ecologically stable stand of trees,” said Stewart McMorrow, the fire district’s forest fuels manager.

In return for the fire district’s fuels reduction and forestry work on their property, the North Tahoe Public Utility District is working with the fire district and Placer County to host a biomass pilot project at their regional park in Tahoe Vista.

“The NTPUD, right now, is positioned to be the critical link to try and do a pilot project,” McMorrow said.

A large industrial chipper, known as a tub grinder, may be stationed at the North Tahoe Regional Park this summer where it will shred the forest waste into wood chips. The chips will then be loaded into trucks and transported down to the closest biomass plant in Loyalton.

McMorrow said there are no plans to burn slash piles on the Firestone property. Brush and branches will be mulched and left on the property, and chopped-down logs, no larger than 14 inches in diameter, will be hauled out to the tub grinder at the North Tahoe Regional Park for biomass processing.

The utility district’s board of directors said they will work with the fire district and Placer County to accommodate the tub grinder in the park’s most northern bowl, so long as provisions are made to maintain the park’s serene ambiance with restricted hours of operation and some type of sound barrier, said district board president Lane Lewis.

“We felt that it was a win-win for both the people in the district and the fire department,” Lewis said. “The main benefit is the fire protection [on the Firestone property] and the recycling aspect of the biomass.”

The pilot program will provide a centralized location within the Tahoe Basin for forest waste to be dropped off and processed for biomass, said Placer County Biomass Manager Brett Storey.

It will also give officials an on-the-ground perspective of exactly how much fuel Tahoe forests can yield for biomass, Storey said.

“I think we know that we have enough to sustain a certain size of the biomass plant,” Storey said. “But now we really want to get down to what is already out there that can be captured.”

The fire district typically requires that the landowner contribute 25 percent of a forest thinning project’s total cost, either in cash or in kind services, said North Tahoe Battalion Chief Dave Ruben. Hosting the biomass pilot project in the regional park would be considered the North Tahoe Public Utility District’s contribution to the Firestone project, which will be funded by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. The North Tahoe Fire Protection District dedicated $170,000 of their Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act money to the Firestone project.

“The [NTPUD] board, while they want to [participate] and it’s getting their work done on their property … they’re sensitive to the nature of the park,” Ruben said.

Crews are tentatively scheduled to begin work on the Firestone property starting August 15. The work will be mostly done by machine, which is cheaper and more efficient, McMorrow said. But low-growing brush and smaller trees growing on the property’s stream environment zone and on steeper slopes will be removed by hand.

The most intense thinning will be within a 300-foot zone of the residences that border the property. Crews will create what is known as a shaded fuel break, McMorrow said, which is designed to stall a wildfire before it reaches urban areas, and vice versa, to defend the forest from urban structure fires.

On top of fire safety, the Firestone project is also a forestry endeavor to boost the area’s ecological health.

“It goes hand in hand,” Ruben said. “Because a healthy forest is more resilient to fire.”