Local agencies are actively educating the Lake Tahoe community about how thinning and burning forest areas near neighborhoods is a way to reduce potential wildfire danger.
On June 27, California State Parks and the California Tahoe Conservancy managers guided a press tour of the work they’ve done to reduce fire hazard and increase forest resiliency in the forests of firs, Jeffrey pines, and sugar pine trees between Rocky Ridge and the new Dollar Creek Trail near Tahoe City. Last year, on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, the 222,000-acre Caldor Fire spared neighborhoods partly because of similar thinning and controlled burning programs the agencies had finished in that area.
In the wake of a recent infusion of state funding, forest managers say they are close to completing the forest thinning and controlled burns needed on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore to reduce fire danger around urban areas and to restore natural conditions that existed before settlers removed a majority of trees for use in the gold and silver mines of Virginia City.
“Basin forest managers are within four years of completing all initial treatments in the wildland urban interface, across all land ownerships thanks in large part to the investments from the state for the wildland and forest resilience package,” explained Forest Schafer, director of the natural resources division at the California Tahoe Conservancy, during the tour.
Ongoing drought conditions and an overgrowth of fire-sensitive fir trees are damaging Tahoe’s abilities to withstand both wildfires and bark beetle infestations, added Joe Harvey, forest operations specialist at the conservancy. “Rather than seeing patches of trees die, we’re seeing entire hillsides getting attacked by beetles and die,” he said. “Rather than seeing fires of varying intensities moving across the landscape — creating openings, burning the understories — we’re seeing 210,000-acre fires crossing the Sierra Nevada into the Tahoe Basin; that’s the first challenge. The second challenge is that the forests we’re managing today have houses planted in the middle of them, which changes how we can use tools like fire to effectively manage this landscape and restore forest and wildfire resilience.”
Jessica Morse, California’s deputy secretary for forest and wildland resilience at the California Natural Resources Agency, described how legislators changed funding tactics to move the projects forward with unprecedented speed.
“It was a fairly radical concept for us to walk into the legislature and say, ‘Instead of just funding Cal Fire for fire resilience, we’d like you to fund 22 departments across 40 different programs,’” she said. “That can come across as scattered and can be off-putting. But we made the case. We recognized that it would be slower if we gave the funding to one department, and they had to give it to other departments. It was going to be distorted if the funding was only coming through in the form of grants and you had to adapt your program to the goals of the grant.”
The tour covered forestry projects in two places: In the first location, next to the newly paved Dollar Creek Trail, the California Tahoe Conservancy explained how it has used thinning techniques to remove fire-sensitive fir trees and ground coverage to open up areas that give the native Jeffrey pine trees, which are fire-resistant, the sunshine and room they need to grow.
“We still have approximately two-thirds of our property to burn,” Harvey said. “Most of our burning happens when there is significant snow on the ground.” That leaves some parts of the debris piles unburned, and this summer, crews will consolidate the burnable material and burn it again. Burning will resume this fall or winter, he added, “once we have adequate moisture return and the conditions are safe again for burning.”
In the second location, above the Burton Creek State Park trailhead near Rocky Ridge, state parks managers explained that they’ve lightly burned forest stands to replicate fire behavior that they’ve assessed would have occurred naturally more than 200 years ago before the arrival of loggers, miners, and town residents who removed trees and suppressed fire. “Our treatments have to be fire surrogates,” Harvey said. “What would fire have done to this landscape? How can we recreate that? We believe that’s going to build resilience into these stands.”
The project managers said their fire resiliency practices draw on information gleaned from many sources, including Native American advisors. “Western science and traditional ecological knowledge need to come together so we can really understand the complexity of what climate change is doing to our land,” Genomé Rodriquez of California State Parks said. “The [traditional people] know these trees best. They live with them, grew up with them; their ancestors helped raise these trees. Combining their knowledge with our knowledge will create a stronger bridge.”