Thousands of acres of slash piles wait to burn
Hand-thinning dense forest stands, done for its low impact on erosion and ease of accessibility, leaves behind stacks of forest fuels left to dry for a year or longer before they can undergo controlled burning.
“It’s the ‘or longer’ part that is problematic,” said Fuel Specialist Mark Johnson of the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
But several barriers significantly limit the Forest Service’s ability to conduct controlled slash fires, the most critical step in forest health projects, because it removes otherwise hazardous fuel from the forest.
The number of permissible burn days, public tolerance of smoke and available manpower all inhibit the efficiency of planned burning, Johnson said.
The Forest Service has recently completed treating 3,045 acres of basin forest, leaving slash piles to cure in the open air until conditions are ripe for controlled burning, Johnson said. Most of the recent thinning occurred on Tahoe’s West Shore.
“We don’t just have a few acres to burn,” Johnson said. “This is a big project, and we hope people understand.”
A lot of controlled fires are in the basin’s future and residents will have to be tolerant, said Johnson. Public complaints can cause the public agency to curtail forest project and even extinguish burning piles, he said.
Available labor also affects the pace of planned burning, especially when Forest Service crews are sent to fight a fire in another part of the nation, Johnson said. The Forest Service is looking to hire contractors or partner with local fire districts to add laborers, he said.
Burning slash piles is also limited by state regulations, which differ between Nevada and California.
California allows burning only on permissible burn days, whereas Nevada does not have burn days, but requires a burn permit approved by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. It is easier to burn in Nevada, the Forest Service’s Johnson said.
“[Slash piles] are a very cost-effective way [to treat forests], if they can actually get the burning done,” said North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw. “Unfortunately, there are serious limitations on the number of [burn] days available. And as a result, piles have been left waiting for a burn opportunity much longer than they were initially intended.”
Meeks Bay Forest Chief John Pang said when the Forest Service started to hand-thin forests two years ago on the West Shore, it was music to his ears.
“I’d much rather see the piles than no treatment at all,” Pang said. “It would just be nice to get rid of the piles within the two- to three-year period.”
Johnson said about half the days in the early spring and late fall months are designated as burn days.
Air Quality Specialist Heather Kuklo with the Placer County Air Pollution Control District counted 115 burn days in the 12-month period through August, but the number varies each year depending on weather and length of wildfire season, she added.
The decision to declare a burn day depends on whether atmospheric conditions allow the smoke to dissipate.
“We want to be able to have it where the smoke can escape and go up, rather than go into your neighbor’s yard,” Kuklo said.
A burn day is based on state regulations and the Air Resource Board recommendation, said county Air Quality Specialist Anne Hobbs. The recommendation is passed down to air control districts and air basins, who determine if local conditions fit the recommendation. Localities can be more stringent, but not more lenient, than the state’s recommendation.
Lake Tahoe has it’s own air basin, one of 12 in California, and one with stricter regulations than adjacent basins, said the Forest Service’s Johnson.
“The air district supports the use of burning when it’s the appropriate tool and the appropriate situation,” Hobbs said. “In some cases, you have other tools that may be available, such as chipping.”
Burning is more feasible than chipping or hand removal of the slash piles, but the Forest Service is exploring both alternatives.
Chipping is not an option for many sites with slash piles, because the equipment often cannot access the area, due to erosion and water-quality regulations or road proximity, Officials said.
The Meeks Bay Fire District purchased a $93,000 chipper with a grant and is chipping forest fuels on private land, Chief Pang said. But the work is very labor-intensive, and consequently, expensive.
The Forest Service is also looking to award a contract for a pilot project that would hand-thin a unit, but would look to biomass utilization instead of pile burning, Johnson said.
“We’d love to get out of the pile burning,” Johnson said. But because of accessibility and environmental impact, “There’s always going to be locations where pile burning is the best option.”
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