Dry winter changes strategy for controlled burns in Sierra

01/11/2012 12:00 AM

01/12/2012 3:14 PM

Northern California's unusually dry winter hasn't made it easy for fuel-management crews in the Sierra, U.S. Forest Service officials report.

Although access to prescribed burn sites is easier than when there's snow on the ground, "we actually prefer to burn in the snow," said Kyle Jacobson, fuels battalion chief for the Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Prescribed fires – also called controlled burns – are conducted to improve forest health and reduce fuel loads.

"We basically burn year-round, whenever conditions are right," he said. "Fall is our primary burn season, but we burned all summer and we'll burn until it's all covered by snow."

A piece of paper atop each pile to be burned creates a small dry spot, even in snowy weather, he said – all that's needed to get a burn started.

"The dryness and the high-pressure system have affected our burning," Jacobson said. "We're starting to scale down because of the dryness and because we're very concerned about smoke settling in the basin."

Scaling down means working on smaller units, he said, such as a 1-acre fire Tuesday at Sunnyside near Tahoe City.

"State Parks burned a lot earlier, but is also scaling back," Jacobson said, and local fire departments are keeping their burns small.

"We have to stay in our comfort zones," he said. "Sometimes that means extra personnel, a hand line or hose lay."

The latter two involve digging a fire break into the soil around the perimeter of the burn site and laying hose around it.

While a low-pressure system is usually better, as it brings breezes that lift smoke away from communities, he said, "we have to balance containment and smoke – our No. 1 concern is keeping the community safe."

In 2011, the unit, which manages 78 percent (154,000 acres) of land in three national forests surrounding the lake, conducted 1,700 prescribed fires, according to Cheva Heck, the unit's public affairs officer.

Nine hundred were in El Dorado County and 400 each in Placer and Douglas counties, she said.

"We try to burn 1,500 to 2,000 acres a year," Jacobson said. "We've burned about 600 acres since October. A large portion of that was in the old Angora fire scar. This summer we focused a lot on the west shore."

"Angora accounts for about 250 of the acres burned in El Dorado County," Heck said, "and we also have more ready to burn there."

Next up, she said, is bigger acreage on the west shore in the McKinney-Rubicon area and Ward Canyon when burn conditions improve – "otherwise smaller acreage wherever we get the opportunity."

Because the priority is community safety, much of the work takes place on forest land surrounding populated areas.

"As the years go on," Jacobson said, "we can move away from communities and do more understory burns to restore meadows and aspen stands."

Burn areas are announced in newspapers and marked with signs, said Lisa Herron, another public affairs specialist with the unit.

Residents and visitors can expect to see smoke from most of the fires, Herron said.

Despite efforts to minimize the smoke, she said, smoke-sensitive residents should consider staying indoors and keeping doors, windows and outside vents closed.

Prescribed fire updates may be requested by sending an email to pa_ltbmu@fs.fed.us

The unit's fire information number is (530) 543-2600, Ext. 6.

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