TNF: Letting fire run its course risky
Smokey Bear is alive and well on the Tahoe National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service’s mascot has taken his lumps lately. It’s now widely acknowledged that decades of wildfire suppression actually increased the risk of catastrophic forest fires due to an unnatural build-up of fuels such as brush and small trees.
So some national forests and parks have a policy of letting wildfires sparked by lightning or other natural causes run their course in remote spots, such as wilderness areas – provided they don’t damage people, property or resource values.
But don’t expect TNF officials to just start letting wildfires rip anytime soon.
“There’s too many people, and there’s checkerboard (land) ownership,” said Judy Tartaglia, deputy forest supervisor. “We’ve got lots of people who don’t particularly care for their homes to burn down.”
In the mid-1990s, TNF officials kicked around the idea of allowing naturally caused fires to burn in the 25,700-acre Granite Chief wilderness area west of Lake Tahoe. But ultimately they decided there were too many constraints, including the wilderness’ relatively small size and the effect of smoke in the Lake Tahoe basin, Tartaglia said.
Instead of allowing naturally caused wildfires to burn, the TNF’s strategy is to try to mimic natural fires using prescribed burns and mechanical thinning of brush.
But officials admit that approach isn’t putting a big dent in the problem.
Last year, the TNF used prescribed burns and mechanical means to treat 6,000 acres – less than 1 percent of the 800,000-acre TNF.
Statewide, national forests used prescribed burning and thinning to clear between 100,000 and 125,000 acres last year, said forest service spokesman Matt Mathes.
That’s a big increase from the early 1990s, when 8,000 to 9,000 acres were treated statewide, he said.
“So there’s been a beginning,” Mathes said. “But you’re talking about a total of 20 million acres (of national forestland in California).”
“We need to do more. We know we need to do more,” Mathes said.
But “60 years of aggressive fire prevention got us into this situation, and it’s going to take us decades to get out.”
— TNF acres treated last year by prescribed fire and mechanical thinning: 6,000 acres.
— Amount of TNF acreage that should be treated, according to Sierra Nevada Framework (a plan to manage the Sierra Nevada’s national forests): 25,000 acres.
— About half a percent of California’s national forests receive prescribed burns or thinning to mimic natural wildfire.
– Source: Tahoe
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