Tahoe fire restoration focuses on long term
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) – When the Cain family rebuilt their Tahoe Mountain home, leveled during the Angora Fire of June 2007, most windows were installed facing east.
In that direction, many trees survived, their trunks scarred by fire but with canopies now green with healthy needles.
To the west, looking toward Angora Ridge, the forest is dead. Bare tree trunks rise from the snow like huge, blackened toothpicks.
“Up there it’s terrible,” said Julie Cain, 42. “We only have one window looking out there.”
Nearly three years after the wind-whipped inferno charred nearly 5 square miles and destroyed 254 homes, signs of Lake Tahoe’s largest, most destructive wildfire are everywhere.
Much work has been accomplished on the fire-scarred landscape, but the federal government is embarking on a long-term effort to restore the forest.
The idea isn’t to return it to what is was before the blaze: an overgrown tinderbox, dominated by white fir and Jeffrey pine, that sprung up in the wake of Comstock-era clear-cutting, livestock grazing and other human-related changes dating back nearly 150 years.
Instead, in a process that will take years and cost up to $15 million, the U.S. Forest Service wants to bring back a healthier forest with a mix of Jeffrey and Sugar pine, incense cedar and red fir. It would be a forest more resistant to drought and insect attack and less susceptible to fire.
Portions of Angora Creek, where the fire raced through thick vegetation to rocket into neighborhoods, will be reconstructed.
And Seneca Pond, the site of a 1960s hippie commune and where a carelessly abandoned campfire started the disastrous blaze, will be altered from a swimming hole to a natural wetlands area that will help filter out sediment now flowing into Lake Tahoe, providing important habitat for wildlife at the same time.
“Our strategy is looking at the ecosystem as a whole,” said Duncan Leao, a forester and planner for the Forest Service’s Tahoe unit. “We’re looking at the future sustainability of the forest. Overall, the project will have a long-term benefit.”
Leao acknowledged that the effort will impact a community already traumatized by disaster and the stress of rebuilding.
The work could start as soon as this month with the early planting of tree seedlings across 450 acres and pick up pace as soon as the summer. It will last years and further impact residents.
Removing dead trees will make noise and tear up the ground and vegetation that recovered since the fire.
“We understand that work in the Angora Fire area has an emotional impact on those who experienced the fire and its sudden devastation,” Forest Supervisor Terri Marceron wrote in a March 10 letter announcing the release of an environmental assessment of the project. “Change in the burned area would be noticeable and constant in the next five to eight years.”
“There’s still an emotional impact,” Leao agreed. “People are still reeling from the fire. It was scarring.”
To Cain, whose family has been living in their rebuilt home now for about five months, the recovery process was “long and tiresome.”
She’s hoping to see more trees growing across the landscape, including saplings already planted in places.
Catherine Cecchi, whose home survived the fire with roof and siding damage, takes an emotional hit every time she surveys the burn area when driving over Echo Summit.
“It’s just so depressing to see it,” said Cecchi, 33. “Your heart just sort of sinks. “It’s going to take hundreds of years before it looks anything like it used to.”
Cecchi said she’s hoping restoration work won’t tear up the land as much as she witnessed during earlier efforts to remove burned trees that posed hazards near trails and roads.
But she said she’s also encouraged with how the land appears to be recovering in many ways.
“There’s signs of it coming back, for sure,” Cecchi said. “When you think of the big picture, it’s not the end of the world.”
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