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Fighting Fire with Fire

Public agencies and their partners use every tool in the box to face the looming threat of fire
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Decades of Bad Decisions — How We Got Here

When discovery of the Comstock Lode sparked a mining frenzy in the 1860s, Lake Tahoe’s forests made up the “green gold” that supplied the industry with timber for its infrastructure. The logging industry that boomed alongside silver laid the basin bare, and if you stand on one of Tahoe’s highest peaks and look out across the watershed now it’s unlikely you will see a single tree older than 130 years. According to Malcolm North, who works with the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station to study forest ecology across the Sierra Nevada, only about five or six small patches of old growth forest still exist in the entirety of the Basin.

By the time conservancy efforts and natural succession began to heal the scars of the mining craze and reconstitute the forests around Tahoe/Truckee — not in their natural state but in groves far more dense than before — the age of fire suppression began.

“Starting in about the 1920s or ‘30s, the national agencies and particularly the forest service started actually getting pretty good at putting out fire,” North said. “They had a 10 a.m. policy, which meant if you saw smoke get started, the goal was to put out [the fire] by 10 a.m. the next morning.” And so the forest grew thicker and fuels built up. Before the age of firefighting a mixed conifer forest would typically burn every 10 to 15 years, according to North. These regular burns almost never crowned, instead working through the underbrush to dispose of much of the dead waste.

Fast-forward to present day, and the region is coping with multiple years of serious drought leading to the worst tree mortality rates California has ever seen. According to a statement by TRPA executive director Joanne Marchetta, “the number of dead trees on national forest land at Tahoe has grown each year from 35,000 in 2015 to 72,000 in 2016 and 168,000 in 2017.” The bark beetle infestation that has followed has led to a magnitude of tree deaths that North says is unprecedented in the Sierra Nevada.

The result of all of this? The compound effect of regrowth after the logging boom, followed by aggressive fire suppression led to a very dense forest system in Tahoe. The exponential stockpiling of potential fuel increases the chance of a fire “crowning” or moving from the underbrush into the forest canopy — this is how the big ones get started.

“Forest fires happen because of decades of decisions that are made beforehand,” says forest ecologist Malcom North of a long line of mistakes in forest management stretching more than 100 years into the past. These unintentional blunders have compounded with climate change and natural forest processes throughout the years to create the most dangerous fire conditions in Tahoe’s human history, leaving us struggling to play catch-up.

The toolboxes possessed by public agencies to prevent wildfire are unique in that they include not just a bevy of modern treatment methods, but also extensive access to the most current data, state funding and grants, as well as interagency cooperation and some unusual creative partnerships. Will these new efforts be enough to keep up with the looming threat of a catastrophic wildfire in Tahoe? Moonshine Ink checked in with local fire experts to find out.

Treating a Dangerous Fuel Buildup

The current problem is rooted in a dry, overgrown, and fuel-heavy forest system (see sidebar), an issue that has led to bigger burns — the new technical term is “catastrophic megafires” — and even made it near impossible to acquire decent, if any, home insurance in the area (see The Great Insurance Pullout). Since Jan. 1 of this year, fire teams across the state have already responded to over 1,677 wildfires.

“A healthy forest is one that’s probably going to look to the average eye as having less trees, less understory, and more mature trees of large size,” said Joseph Flannery, public information officer for Tahoe National Forest. To hit this mark, the basic modern approach to fire mitigation involves thinning and disposal of fuels. Hand-thinning and mechanical thinning removes smaller trees and underbrush to a place offsite or leaves them behind to be reintegrated into the forest. Debris left behind is sometimes burned in piles, a process that usually involves leaving the debris mounds out to dry for many months. Alternatively, left-behind debris is chopped or mulched by machine and scattered about the site — a process called mastication.

“The problem with mastication is that you’re kind of trading one kind of fuel for another,” North says. The upside of mastication is that it eliminates what experts call “ladder fuels,” which create a graduated system of understory brush and limbs that encourage the fire to climb into the canopy and crown — this is how the big blazes get started. The downside is the wood-chip-like waste left behind creates a dense fuel bed on the forest floor that can smolder and slowly “cook” the live trees. Fire mitigation needs to be a one-two process, says Flannery, that starts with thinning and mastication, then moves on to prescribed burns or fuel removal for biomass.

More Money; More Staff

Here’s the rub: management areas are huge. Of the 110,000 acres that Truckee Ranger District manages, there are tens of thousands of acres within the district that the forest service has deemed as “at-risk” or susceptible to drought, insects, and fire. Of this, about 6,000 acres are currently being treated, but only about 300 acres a year are being treated with prescribed burns.

“Under our current models right now the need for treating at-risk [areas] is greater than our capacity to provide treatment, so there’s a little bit of shortfall there,” Flannery said. “That is changing because we’re changing the models of how we do things. We’re much more reliant on outside funding.”

Flannery says that, in contrast with many forest service departments across the country, the Truckee district is less reliant on federal funds, and therefore less sensitive to “fire-borrowing,” when funds are siphoned from other forest service budget sectors for fire suppression (see The Tahoe Matchbox). Most of Truckee Ranger District’s fire mitigation funding comes from grant funds achieved through partnerships with state agencies like Cal Fire, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and the National Forest Foundation, as well as some cap-and-trade funds.

It’s not just funding that’s an issue, though. Staffing for fire mitigation becomes nearly impossible when the teams that usually perform this work during the fall are still out fighting fire. Flannery says the department had teams sent down to the Thomas Fire in Southern California around Christmas time last year. When it comes to how to approach the tens of thousands of acres of at-risk land with limited funds and staff, the forest service sometimes needs to implement a “best-bang-for-your-buck” approach to analyze where different methods of forest treatment can be used.

Biomass: Two Birds at Once

There is another technique that is almost, if not as efficient, as prescribed burning in reducing forest fuels. Biomass facilities burn dead waste material from forest thinning to create renewable energy, and are a key tool in fire mitigation.

In 2007, Placer County created a strategic plan to address the benefits of biomass and to implement it within the county, but the effort to build a local facility has been slow going. A proposed facility at Cabin Creek above the Truckee River between Tahoe City and Truckee is at a standstill after years of negotiations with Liberty Utilities to buy energy from the facility, or possibly buy the whole facility outright. The negotiations came under the gun in January as a deadline for a Department of Energy grant to help funding approached, but because no agreements had been reached with Liberty, Placer County pulled out of negotiations. The project has been halted, but not forgotten.

While no big movement has been made toward finding a new partner, Jennifer Montgomery, Placer County District 5 Supervisor, is involved in discussions for options. “I think it’s critically important to recognize that we still have an approved project at Cabin Creek, and my full intention is to do everything I can to make sure it gets built, just with a different partner,” she said.

Partnership options are out there. Shut down for about eight years, the Loyalton Biomass Facility resumed operations in April after American Renewable Power purchased the facility from Sierra Pacific Industries and completed a refurbishment. Truckee Ranger District Ranger Joanne Roubique says the district plans to send chips from a fire treatment project at Big Jack East near Sierra Meadows in Truckee to a co-generation plant like the one in Loyalton.

“One thing we’ve definitely learned from years and years of fire suppression with probably the best wildland fire crews in the world, is no matter how good you are you can’t prevent the fire,” North said. “If you start taking tools away from your ability to be able to reduce that fire effect, like prescribed burning and biomass use of these small mills, then it makes it that much harder to get stuff done.”

While biomass seems like a win-win, in reality bioenergy still doesn’t pencil well in the national energy market. According to Cal Fire, the revenues from operations do not fully cover the cost to collect and transport biomass to the facility.

It Takes a Village — Collaboration

One of the most important realities that the Truckee/Tahoe region is embracing, is that the forest service does not have the bandwidth nor the funds to tackle this issue alone. The added availability of state funds is a key factor. As Jeff Brown, director of the Sagehen Creek Field Station, said, “If we were dependent on federal dollars, we’re hosed.” But perhaps just as important is the conversation among partners that aren’t specifically fire related. Brown manages the 9,000 acre Sagehen Experimental Forest 10 miles north of Truckee that was originally set up as a fish-based research station but became part of a large land area treatment project. As a result of that project, Brown says they ended up with “probably one of the best inventoried forests in the United States.” Since then, funded by the University of California, Berkeley and with grants from Sierra Nevada Conservancy and National Forest Foundation, the station and its partners have utilized various forms of thinning treatment across the experimental forest site. They plan to do some prescribed burning in the future.

“What we did here [at Sagehen], this collaborative approach, is now being used … in the Tahoe West Project,” Brown said. The Tahoe West is a partnership of almost countless jurisdictions and agencies collaborating to treat about 80,556 acres from Emerald Bay to Squaw Valley. Brown says that many of the same partners are now also working on another project called the Tahoe Central Sierra Initiative that significantly scales up the scope of land being considered for treatment to include a large portion of the Northern Sierra Nevada surrounding Lake Tahoe. Brown says these projects won’t go into full effect for a few years, but that is a necessary timeline to ensure a smart approach to something that will be dictating the health of the forest for decades to come.

“What you don’t want to do is rush into it and screw it up,” Brown said.

The cautious timeline doesn’t mean work hasn’t been done. In the Tahoe Basin, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team has treated more than 70,000 acres, thinning and reducing the amount of hazardous fuels in the forest, particularly in the wildland/urban interface where forests and communities meet. The Team, a collaboration of about 18 sponsors and partnering organizations, hopes to treat the remaining 50,000 acres of wildland urban interface at Tahoe over the next 10 years. The process is never truly over, though — forests change and trees die, requiring what Flannery calls a “revolving door of fire treatment.” 

Private-Public Partnerships

The imperative to protect our region is shared by private companies in some cases. Cal Fire recently alleged that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) was responsible for at least three of the many destructive fires that raged through California last year. The three blazes, which burned about 1,000 acres and destroyed 60 structures, were all caused by trees falling on the company’s power lines. Cal Fire has claimed that PG&E failed to cut back the trees to a legal distance from the lines, and was in violation of state law. The case is still being processed.

Local utility provider Liberty Utilities is in the process of addressing growth around its own power lines in order to avoid a similar situation. “Years of drought have left many of the trees in our service territory vulnerable to disease, particularly damage by the bark beetle,” said Eliot Jones, Liberty Utilities manager of vegetation control and regulatory compliance, in a statement (see News Briefs).

Social Investment

Far from a fire treatment agency, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation has entered the ring as well, recognizing that fire treatment is not only necessary for the security of local residents, but also a potential economic boon. With a $15,000 nature grant matched by the Martis Fund, the community foundation hired Conservation Science Partners to put together an interactive mapping system resource for forest management. The primary targets of this service are private entities that manage large swaths of land, and community foundation executive director Stacy Caldwell said that they have already rolled the service out to all the local ski resorts as well as provided it to the forest service.

Another part of the foundation’s efforts simply involve outreach. Caldwell says that the near future will hold a fire-based outreach series, possibly this summer. She, as well as many at the forest service, are driven to educate the community about forest ecology so that efforts to treat it can be addressed quickly.

“Sometimes we get in the way of ourselves if we’re not educating ourselves on these issues,” said Caldwell, speaking of some of the backlash against the Big Jack East fire mitigation project. “Now we’re taking it to the next level and educating our donors and the community about what’s happening. It’s a really important piece, so that we don’t stand in the way of those solutions.”

As another fire season approaches in Tahoe, a season that grows wider at the shoulders each year, the time draws near to take stock of what the region is up against. The odds don’t currently seem to be in our favor, but the tools are there, and the men and women on the front lines remain optimistic.

“Our forest challenge is a huge one, but I think this one is solvable,” Brown said. “Once we get the public and the political will behind it I’m confident that we can fix this if we invest the energy, the thinking, and the resources to do it. So I see a light at the end of this tunnel.”

 
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October 11, 2018