My Turn: History has solutions for Tahoe fire risk
In the aftermath of the devastation caused by the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe, many declared as fact that the problems for the Sierra Nevada Mountains began with logging in the 19th century.
Logging, their theory goes, destroyed abundant forests that never returned. Those 19th century loggers might make a convenient scapegoat ” they can’t do much to defend themselves, after all.
But people from the 19th century did leave behind lots of evidence ” evidence that largely contradicts the theory and provides a real view of the historic forests of the Sierra Nevada.
In the 1990s, I embarked on a nine-year project to examine how the landscape of the Sierra Nevada changed over time and what likely happened since the mid-1800s. More than 100 19th and 20th Century photographs of the Sierra Nevada were secured from various archives. I then went into the field, relocated the original camera points and re-photographed many of these scenes.
With little exception, the modern-day landscapes are far denser with trees and brush than those that existed more than 100 years ago. And those 19th Century forests with fewer trees were much more resistant to catastrophic wildfire.
Landscapes were far less dense because of low-intensity fires caused by lightening strikes or deliberately set by Native Americans as part of their own land management. As a result, the land was more open, with more meadows and far fewer trees than we see today.
Through fire suppression and restrictions on removing trees, we have created a Tahoe Basin and Sierra Nevada range that is anything but natural and is out of line with the historic forest.
Our land is packed with more trees than ever, often bounded by brush that is far denser than it was historically.
People who live in the area instinctively know this to be the case. They recognized the extreme fire danger and simply hoped that a fire like the Angora one wouldn’t occur.
Why did some resist efforts to thin the forests surrounding Lake Tahoe? Very simply, they like to be surrounded and immersed in trees. It is a nice feeling.
But feelings and facts are two different things.
Our forests today in the Tahoe area are unhealthy and badly in danger of falling to yet another catastrophic wildfire. Sadly, wildfire destroys forests and is devastating to those who loose their homes and personal effects.
And today’s forests do not provide wildlife the kind of habitat they have historically enjoyed. Closure of tree canopies has virtually eliminated understory shrubs and herbs that are critical to the sustenance of nearly all species of wildlife.
History can help provide a more accurate view of the natural composition of Northern California landscapes and a more realistic benchmark for understanding the relative condition of wildlife habitat.
As people assess what is needed next for Lake Tahoe, we should first take a look back and gain an historic perspective and create a forest that is less prone to catastrophic wildfire and offers more biological diversity.
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