Wildfires in California made history in 2020 burning over four million acres. In response Lake Tahoe agencies are ramping up their efforts at reducing the risk of these catastrophic fires.
Firefighters have been working tirelessly in the snow to burn hazardous fuels around the basin.
Burn boss and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Fuels Battalion Chief Phil Heitzke was leading a burn on Wednesday near the Heavenly Mountain Resort as part of the Heavenly ULM unit which he says they expect to finish in the next week.
This prescribed burn area is an urban lot meaning it butts up close to a neighborhood. The burn will help remove the vegetation around the homes while also targeting an area that could be potentially be catastrophically hit by wildfire.
The engine crew was burning several piles on about 4 acres of Forest Service land. The first pile lit was the “test fire” — and it was lit with only a handheld lighter showing how dry these piles are. Firefighters examine the test fire’s behavior showing what to expect from the others.
Anybody that has hiked around the basin has likely noticed stacked piles in the wilderness.
While they may look like they are abandoned, firefighters individually cut and stacked each of those piles which are made up of fuels — forest debris such as tree limbs and excess vegetation. These piles season for several winters before crews go out to light them with gas and drip torches. Seasoning allows the piles to burn effectively while producing the least amount of smoke.
Piles that have been seasoning for over five years paired with dry winters like the ones Heitzke and his crew are working on burn in about 45 minutes, then the crew spend about two hours mopping it up before heading to the next treatment area.
Heitzke says that in some areas they have treated, wildfires have still occurred, but there is noticeably different fire behavior and wildfires are also more manageable in those areas.
Excess fuels increase wildfire risk and these projects are set out to not only decrease the amount of fuels but also rearrange how they are dispersed including spacing out trees.
These projects can’t fully eliminate risk, they substantially decrease risk and make the forest more wildfire resistant.
“Fire is a natural tool in conjunction with fuels management,” said Heitzke.
He explained that efforts to completely suppress wildfires has created severe undergrowth and overgrowth of the forests.
For thousands of years fires were not suppressed. All changed in the early 1900s when fire became the enemy.
After the Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in the Northwestern United States, a culture shifted to eliminating all fire. But such an approach also eliminated the smaller fires that are essential for keeping wildlands healthy.
For thousands of years Native Americans have been practicing “cultural burning” using intentionally lit low-intensity fire to promote the health of the land and diversity of wildlife in an area.
In mid-December of 2020, the California Tahoe Conservancy Board awarded a $380,454 grant to the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California for the Máyala Wáta Restoration Project at Meeks Meadow.
According to the Conservancy, before European arrival, members of the Washoe Tribe ignited and maintained fires on the land to support native plants and wildlife habitat.
Since the introduction of cattle grazing, logging during the comstock era, and fire suppression, the health of the meadow hasn’t quite recovered. Fire suppression increased the amount of lodgepole pines within the meadow along with drying soils.
“These factors threw basin forests out of balance, allowing vegetation to build up to hazardous levels,” said Milan Yeates, the Conservancy’s acting community forestry supervisor and a registered professional forester. “Historically, naturally occurring, frequent wildfires burned brush and small trees ― this process resulted in less intense fires. Land managers today are trying to restore these historical conditions to achieve forest resilience.”
In efforts to connect and deploy the knowledge of the Washoe Tribe the project includes tribal members removing encroaching pine trees, prescribed fire training and participation in culturally guided prescribed burning.
Tribals members will also remove invasive plant species while replacing them with culturally important vegetation.
The project will also be an opportunity for tribal elders to pass on cultural knowledge to future generations on how to protect the land, wildlife and culture.
As part of California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan that was released earlier this year, there is a goal to expand prescribed fire as well recognizing that low-intensity fire is a key force in improving forest health and biodiversity along with keeping communities in the wildland urban interface safe.
While statewide, the plan is backed by $1 billion from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget, with $12 million going to the Conservancy to support the Resilient State Lands initiative. The Conservancy manages over 6,500 acres of land in the basin.
One of the biggest constraints of expanding burn operations according to Heitzke is resources.
In efforts to increase operations, LTBMU and other agencies have partnered and taken to a “team concept” to accomplish a common goal while putting a dent in thousands of cut and stacked piles to help protect surrounding communities from the impacts of devastating fires.
The Conservancy is also focusing on using more prescribed fire through its partnerships with the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, which includes 21 federal, tribal, state, local conservation, land management, and fire agencies in the basin.
“TFFT partners are already increasingly using prescribed fire, and are coordinating on ways we can do even more,” said Yeates. “With hundreds of thousands of visitors in the basin during peak summer days, there is a pressing need to protect our communities, and using more prescribed fire is the most cost-effective way to change fire behavior in our forests.”
While drought has been a huge contributor to the massive fires, these prescribed operations allow firefighters to get a better foothold and help contain large fires easier.
LTBMU recently contracted North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District and Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District to help burn some of the LTBMU piles, including one of the projects near Spooner Summit.
“They [prescribed burns] are so important for the health of our environment and safety of our community,” said Keegan Schafer, fuels management officer at TDFPD who’s been leading these burns with the Zephyr Crew.
Schafer says that here in the basin, we’re unique and lucky to have great relationships with partners.
The crew is currently working on an area of forest near the casinos on the California side of Stateline, Van Sickle Bi-Sate Park. Ample planning went into this project and others nearby along with state funding from 2017.
This project is about 108 total acres with about 20 to 30 piles per acre. Schafer says they will be burning about half of the amount this winter.
“We are on target to get what we set out to get,” said Schafer. “It is a process.”
While Schafer says the weather at lake level has been ideal, he would like to get a lot more done.
“It is a strong mission of mine to not let smoke into the casino corridor,” he said.
The crews only have a small window of time to accomplish these operations.
“We have to go out and replicate what fire once did,” said Schafer.
This treatment reduces the fuel load and recreating what the forest once looked like.
“We will take a walk through a project the summer after and you can already see the difference,” he said.
He said that even after one season, the forest shows improved health and diversity with vegetation and wildlife.
“It’s a good start in the right direction — especially when dealing with communities,” he said. “There are a lot of acres in the basin that need treatment.”
The next mission will be tackling the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Project that will include roughly 59,000 acres from Emerald Bay to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
This project isn’t just focused on fuels reduction but will also include several other tactics towards restoration.
The North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District’s Fuels Management Division has been conducting burns this season as well. “We had a very productive season this year, the most successful yet, burning 247 acres of piles over the 2020/2021 winter, due to favorable weather conditions,” said Fuels Management Division Chief Isaac Powning in an email.
NLTFPD burned all of the piles that were cured and ready to burn for this year. Most of the piles were located on USFS and Incline Village General Improvement District land, with some additional units that were on private property.
“We feel the use of prescribed fire needs to expand throughout the basin and the country as a whole,” said Powning. “Prescribed fire implementation faces many hurdles such as funding, resource availability, regulatory requirements, weather/fuels conditions, as well as social and political challenges.”
Powning said that these challenges are not unique to the basin, but are present throughout the United States.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, several operations were postponed for the LTBMU’s prescribed burns efforts. However, crews are already ahead of schedule when it comes to acres treated. LTBMU manages over 54,000 acres following the ridgeline of the basin.
In the fiscal year October 2019 to September 2020, the LTBMU and partners have treated over 515 acres of Forest Service land, this fiscal year that began October 2020 and runs until September 2021, over 711 acres have been treated and with plenty of months left in the fiscal year.
LTBMU Public Information Officer Lisa Herron said that these crews will tend to focus on areas adjacent to communities, or neighborhoods in a wildland urban interface, to create a “safety buffer.”
While Heitzke says most of the basin needs treatment, the actual amount of acres is a moving target.
Heitzke says that these treated areas will need maintenance again 5-15 years later.
“It is a very complex procedure,” Herron said. “Many are unaware of why those piles are sitting there.”
Herron said that while it is difficult to calculate exactly how many piles are left, Hazardous Fuels Program Manager Todd Flower gave a ballpoint figure of there being roughly 250,000 piles waiting to be burned on Forest Service land.
“On average we burn 60-90 days during the prescribed fire season,” said Herron.
That number though depends on several factors including resource availability, air quality, weather — including temperature, humidity, moisture content, wind. These factors play a huge role in the formulation of a prescription operation.
“There is no specific fire season anymore — fires are year round — now it’s a fire year,” said Herron. “As wildfire activity ramps up, there are less resources because they shift towards wildfire suppression.”
But Herron says they are working closely with partners to get as much done as possible.
“These low-intensity fires were a natural process in the Sierra Nevada,” she said.
The first part is to remove excess vegetation that feed wildfires, starting with the excess fuels around communities first. The second part is reintroducing fire back into the basin.
“Low intensity fires have a huge impact on the ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada,” said Herron. “It is key to note that low-intensity fires are completely different from catastrophic fires.”
To see a map of prescribed burns, visit https://www.tahoelivingwithfire.com/get-informed/.