Forest Service answers questions about prescribed burns

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Rex Norman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, provided answers to some frequently-asked questions on prescribed burns.

Are there different types of prescribed burns?

Yes, there are two types: Pile burns and landscape underburns.

Pile burns are used first. These quickly and efficiently eliminate the burden of hazardous fuels that have accumulated. Since they are created by hand crews, they are properly referred to as "hand piles."

Experienced crews create hand piles that will dry out after a period of seasoning - generally 18 months to two years. Some piles may stand longer due to the scheduling and availability of crews when available burn days are at hand.

Do the hand piles increase fire danger?

The presence of hand piles does not increase fire danger, as is commonly supposed. The fuels were not imported from another area, and do not increase fire behavior. In fact, in nearly all cases, bringing the fuels together and on the ground, reduces fire spread.

What's in a hand pile?

The hand piles are made up of the dead and down woody material on the forest floor (small- to medium-sized branches, chunks of wood). In addition, hand crews will remove dead lower branches of medium-sized trees that serve as "ladder fuels" during a fire. Small-diameter trees deemed to be overgrowth can also be cut and added to the hand piles.

When are burns allowed?

On the California side of the basin, air quality officials determine if the right weather exists to burn the piles so that moving, unstable air can lift and carry the smoke out of the basin. On the Nevada side, there is no regulatory permission; however, we still burn on days when smoke will be carried up and out.

Is there a schedule for prescribed burns?

We do most burns during fall and spring, and during winter (pile burns) if the snow cover is enough but not too much. We cannot actually schedule burns on a calendar. Most times, we must wait until a day or two before ignition to know if weather, humidity and winds will be favorable.

What areas are being targeted for prescribed burns?

We are concentrating on the wildland urban interface - the areas nearest to communities at risk to wildfire. These are areas where we can do work to reduce the intensity of an approaching wildfire and give firefighters a safer space to attack the fire. A map showing planned areas for prescribed burns can be found at

Instead of burning, why not bring in a herd of goats to eat the forest debris?

Goats or livestock would only eat the grasses and shrubs - not wood, which is the problem. And, livestock use would certainly lead to extensive stream bank damage and seriously unacceptable erosion.


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