Burns may fill sky with smoke

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STATELINE - About 25 acres of pile burning are planned for three different areas of Douglas County, as the U.S. Forest Service begins its prescribed burns.

The Douglas County burn is just one of several burns which will be done this fall as the service eliminates piles of wood which have been stacked in areas around the lake.

The Forest Service plans to start burning next week.

"We have approximately 500 acres of pile burning on the South Shore part of El Dorado County. We obviously won't be doing that in one day," said Mark Johnson, fire management officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. "A majority of that is on the Pioneer Project, but there are some areas all over.

"It's a lot of pile burning," he added. "That's because of the (vegetation) management projects we're completing near urban areas."

Many forests in the basin are dense. Trees compete against each other for sunlight and nutrients. Add a drought in the early 1990s and an ongoing bark beetle infestation and the end result is as many as a third of the trees in the basin are dead.

Natural fire has been largely absent from Tahoe for more than 100 years, and that has led to a buildup of fuels - branches, pine cones, needles and fallen trees - on the forest floor.

All of that together combines to create the potential for dangerous, catastrophic wildfires, he said.

The Forest Service, with the Pioneer Project and other activities, has tried to create fuel breaks near residential areas, he said. Prescribed underburning that the Forest Service often conducts cannot feasibly be done near homes, he said. Therefore other treatments, such as wintertime mechanical work in the case of the Pioneer Project, are done, Johnson said.

"The pile burning is the final phase of fuel treatment," he said. "It doesn't provide the same effect an underburn does. Not to say it's bad; it's just a different objective. It's more difficult to do an underburn next to homes."

The Forest Service typically administers prescribed burns in the spring and fall, he said. Atmospheric conditions haven't been acceptable lately, Johnson said, which is putting the service slightly behind schedule since burns usually start the second week of October.

"We really need people to understand that a little bit of smoke leads to a less fire-prone situation next to residential areas," Johnson said.

Other burns planned for around the basin:

-- The only underburn this season will be 250 acres on North Shore.

-- Additionally, about 725 acres of pile burning are planned for North Shore.

-- On the West Shore, officials intend to complete about 30 acres of pile burning.


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