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Tool or time bomb?

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunMark Johnson, fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, talks about burn piles on the West Shore Wednesday.
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Countless piles of dried forest fuels dot thousands of acres in the Lake Tahoe Basin, some bordering residential neighborhoods, waiting their turn to be set on fire.

Slash piles punctuate 3,045 acres of the basin landscape, the majority on the West Shore between Emerald Bay and Tahoe City.

The bonfires-to-be are curing this fall, and scheduled for controlled burning, said Mark Johnson, a forest fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.



But before the Forest Service can set fire to the cured piles, foresters must wait for the summer wildfire danger to subside. Ideal weather conditions consist of light to moderate winds that will sweep the smoke out of the basin, higher humidity and earth dampened by recent rain or snow, Johnson said.

Until these conditions arrive, forest residents will remain nervous about backyard wood piles that they fear could cause a catastrophic wildfire in the blink of an eye.



“If these catch on fire, forget about it,” said West Shore resident Raymond de Vre. “I mean, we have no way out. These piles are huge; they stretch all the way behind all these subdivisions.”

With the dry season approaching its height, neighbors of Forest Service land are weighing the value of the slash piles to forest treatment versus the chance a wildfire will come first.

“Now we’re looking for another chance for these to burn down?” de Vre said. “We’re playing Russian Roulette with our homes.”

North Tahoe Fire Protection District spokesman Ed Miller, himself a West Shore resident, said the wood piles would certainly fuel a fire if caught in its path, but the slash heaps are a necessary step toward thinning the overstocked forest.

“I sort of look at them as a necessary evil,” Miller said. “In that, they’re not particularly nice to look at, but it’s the first step in treating the forest to reduce the fuel.”

Forest Service officials say the slash piles pose no more threat of a wildfire than an untreated forest. If anything, the piles slightly moderate the danger.

“Always contrast this area, with the unburned piles, with an untreated stand,” Johnson said.

But fire district officials also say the slash piles, when consumed in a wildfire, intensify the radiant heat and increase the danger faced by firefighters.

“The desired condition is to have those piles gone, but [slash piles] are still a moderated stage,” said Cheva Heck, a Forest Service public affairs officer.

The piles do not present any additional fuel, and therefore, do not increase the force of the fire, said Heck.

Furthermore, Johnson noted, the shape of the piles has less tendency to project burning embers.

The piles also allow for more complete combustion of the fuels, Johnson said. It’s as if there were hundreds of burning campfires, the fuels specialist said.

A U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture report that analyzed the effects of fuel treatment on the Angora Fire also observed that a a group of slash piles had similar heat levels as neighboring stands of untreated forest.

“All of the fuel in the hand piles would have been located at a greater height (in upper branches and crown foliage) and would have burned just as this fuel burned in adjacent untreated stands,” the report said. “The greater height of the fuel would have allowed embers to be lofted higher and transported downwind to a greater distance. Very little difference in convective or radiant heat output would have occurred because the same amount of fuel would have burned.”

But Fire Chief Jeff Michael of the Lake Valley Fire District said the Angora Fire intensified once it hit the slash piles in its path.

Michael said he did not agree with the Forest Service’s assessment.

“[The slash piles] concentrated all that fire ” all that fire that was created by those piles in the same place,” Michael said. “If you have one branch burning over here, and one branch burning over there, you have heat. But if it’s all in one place, it’s concentrated and more intense heat.”

Michael said he did not agree with the Forest Service’s assessment.

“In the untreated area, even though it burned really good, really hot, it probably wasn’t as intense as the concentrated fuel piles were,” Michael said. “There were hundreds of them.”


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