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What the Tahoe region has learned from 36 years of prescribed burns

by Julie Brown, San Francisco Chronicle |

I’m standing in a stretch of woods. The trunks of towering trees are charred black and some of the lowest hanging pine needles are singed a burnt orange. Light streams through an open canopy. A sapling of cedar hardly bigger than the palm of my hand has just started to poke its head above a thin layer of pine needles.

This stretch of forest has obviously seen fire recently, but instead of destruction, I see growth and regeneration. The forest just feels healthier, spacious.

“What I see here is a really successful prescribed burn,” says Courtney Rowe, a senior environmental scientist with the California State Parks Sierra District. We are walking through the Edwin L. Z’berg Natural Reserve at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Tahoe’s West Shore with forester Rich Adams and burn boss David Murray. Adams directs the prescribed burn program here, while Murray manages the fire crew.

“I look at this and I get excited because I see us moving back to a system where fire is integrated,” Rowe says. She’s exuberant and speaks quickly, showering me with her knowledge about forest health and fire.

Since 1984, Sugar Pine Point State Park has consistently lit prescribed burns to restore the health of its forest. The park is one of the few places in Tahoe where you can see a landscape that’s seen fire twice or even three times.

As California reckons with a massive backlog of prescribed burns statewide (ProPublica reported recently that the state needs to burn 20 million acres), Sugar Pine Point State Park is an example of what a forest looks like — and how it serves as a robust and functioning ecosystem — when fire is reintroduced.

Before European contact, fire was a natural part of a forest’s cycle of regeneration across the Sierra Nevada, Rowe explains. Native people intentionally used fire to maintain land for hunting and gathering. In the latter half of the 19th century, after the Gold Rush and Nevada’s silver boom, loggers clear-cut the forest across the Tahoe Basin — though the West Shore was a harder area to reach for loggers and as a result, it has some of the area’s oldest trees. Ever since, the forest has largely been managed in a way that puts out fires as quickly as possible.

Today, more than a century’s worth of fuels have built up in forests and are playing a major role in the state’s megafires. Prescribed fires are needed on a large scale. Not only do prescribed burns help prevent megafires, but they also serve a purpose in restoring the ecology of the forest. It sounds counterintuitive, but the charred bark and singed pine needles are signs of a forest on the brink of regrowth.

“For a long time, we’ve recognized how important the natural process of fire is for these forests,” Adams says.

In three decades, Sugar Pine Point State Park has been able to burn 850 of its 2,000 acres, some areas twice. One stretch of land near the shoreline has been burned three times. All the while, the state park has kept a running set of data that helps them truly understand how fire impacts the forest over a longer time scale.

Sugar Pine’s prescribed burn program was born out of a recognition that the forest was changing in the absence of fire. For example, the park’s namesake sugar pine trees were not regenerating like the smaller white firs that proliferated. That’s because white firs can grow in shade and dense areas where a thick layer of pine needles covers the soil. Sugar pines, on the other hand, need sunlight, open space and exposed soil. In other words, sugar pines need fire, or a "disturbance," to clear out spaces for them to grow.

“Pines need open areas,” Rowe says. “It needs disturbance for something to happen. Largely in the Sierra, that disturbance is fire.”

Two years ago, Adams and Murray lit a prescribed fire on the ground where we were standing. Adams calls the technique they used an "understory burn." On an early November day, when conditions aligned just right, they set flame to the forest floor and let low-intensity fire burn small trees, shrubs and the thick layer of pine needles and debris on the ground.

In other cases, they use piles to help clear out some of the forest fuels. First, they use chainsaws to cut down small trees and woody material. Next, crews pile the wood into large mounds that are left to dry out for a season. They return later in the fall to set the piles on fire.

“Fire is the best tool for preparing for fire,” forester Adams says.

Adams has a deep relationship with fire and forest management. He started working at Sugar Pine Point State Park when he was 19, a summer job while he was studying forestry at the University of Washington. He says he learned how to set prescribed fires from his mentors, who in turn learned from Harold Biswell, professor emeritus of forestry and resource management at UC Berkeley and one of the proponents of prescribed fire in California. In 2007, Adams became a burn boss and started writing his own prescriptions.

To write a prescription for fire, Adams considers factors like how much moisture is in the fuels and how many trees need to be thinned, as well as weather conditions and temperature. The goal is to create a checkerboard-like pattern in the forest, with gaps and clusters of trees and lots of ecological diversity. “We want variety in the landscape of the park,” Adams says.

Because Sugar Pine has been burned consistently for more than 30 years, it’s easier to manage the buildup of forest fuels. There are simply fewer trees and pine needles than in an area that has never seen prescribed burns, which means there’s less prep — or “pre-treatment” — that crews have to do before they can burn.

Prescribed fires are not a one-and-done type of project. A forest grows back. Eventually fire needs to return. The cycle is never-ending. The natural timeline, or “fire-return interval” in Tahoe is between five and 40 years, Rowe says. The forest has to be burned repeatedly to get to that natural balance — and also to a point where the risk of wildfire is tempered.

Adams says that the Sierra District of California State Parks, which spans from Mono County in the south to Plumas-Eureka State Park in the north, doesn’t have a backlog of piles to burn, though there are lots of areas where they still want to do prescribed understory burns. Many other land managers are dealing with a backlog across California — and even in the Tahoe Basin. Granted, California State Parks manages a small fraction of the land in the Tahoe Basin compared with the U.S. Forest Service.

“There’s widespread consensus that we need to do more prescribed burning in California,” Rowe says.

Right now, the state park service is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service, the California Tahoe Conservancy, and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency on a massive 59,000-acre project intended to reduce wildfire risk in the Wildland Urban Interface project along Tahoe’s West Shore.

But there are a lot of reasons prescribed burns don’t happen more frequently.

“You start thinking about all the things that have to align,” Rowe says, “and you have to have the conditions, the weather and fuel conditions. Then you have to get permission from the air resources and you have to have firefighting capacity.”

To start, funding is limited. The entire prescribed burn operation at Sugar Pine runs on grants. This year, Murray’s crew is operating short-staffed with only six people, half as many as usual. The dearth of affordable housing in Tahoe is a big hurdle for hiring. To supplement the crew, the state parks rely on Cal Fire — the state’s firefighting agency — for personnel, fire trucks and equipment. At the moment, however, Cal Fire is devoting most if not all of its resources to fighting the wildfires that are burning across the state.

“There’s always this balance that happens in fire,” Rowe says. “When there’s a wildfire, we put all our resources to it. And generally, that means we’re taking resources from preventive actions that would get us out of having large wildfires.”

Air quality and smoke are more hurdles, and Adams works closely with air quality regulators. He’s on the phone with them daily during burn season. “When the atmospheric conditions are appropriate, meaning that the smoke is going to lift and disperse, they always let us [burn],” Adams says. One of the bigger challenges in terms of air quality is actually all of the events that draw people to Tahoe during a traditionally quieter time of year. “I’m not going to burn on the day of the marathon. No way,” Adams says.

Still, Adams stresses that it is possible to burn a lot of ground in a short timeframe, when conditions line up. Adams pointed to a map of the park and tapped one plot after the other that saw fire in the ’90s.

“So we can do it,” he says. “There are certain years where we don’t have a window at all. It just doesn’t line up. But in the years where it’s favorable, we can get a lot done.”

We head down a trail to another plot that Adams wants to show me. This one has been burned three times — a rare kind of frequency in the Basin. I asked Adams how climate change has impacted prescribed burns in Tahoe. “We used to start our prescribed burn season in September, right now,” he says. Climate change is narrowing the window for burning even more, drawing out the hot and dry days that make for marginal burning conditions. Adams makes up the time by burning when there is snow on the ground.

“Actually, during snowstorms is a great time to burn piles,” Adams says, “because the smoke doesn’t impact anybody. The smoke just disappears in the storm.”

He stops walking when the view opens up to the glistening lake. The last time this area burned was in 2007, and the singed pine needles and charred tree trunks have softened to a more vibrant level of growth. Honestly, if they hadn’t told me this area had been burned so many times, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

But Rowe, Adams and Murray see the difference.

“When I see things like this, I’m hopeful that we can do this thing,” Rowe says. “We can show other people it’s possible to align fuels reduction goals and ecological restoration.”

If a wildfire were to come through here, the trio tells me how this clearing might be large enough to tamp down a crown fire and drop the flames back to the ground, where it’s more manageable for firefighters. There’s a caveat, though.

“Unless there’s a storm event,” Adams says. “I mean, if it’s really windy, it’s like there’s nothing you could have done.”

Then Adams and Murray agree that this zone is probably about ready for another prescription.

“I want to burn it again,” Murray says.