Numerous groups are vying to help in California’s forest management and wildfire arena. It’s not that it’s standing room only, but the space is pretty crowded with well-intentioned agencies.

Groups in the Tahoe community, however, have found room to flex their fire innovation muscles. To the Tahoe Fund, the Basin is the perfect petri dish to test new ideas.

“We started to do some research and we realized there’s the opportunity to drive a ton of innovation and technology into our forests in Tahoe,” said Amy Berry, executive director of the Tahoe Fund, a nonprofit supporting environmental projects around Lake Tahoe.

The Smartest Forest Fund, under the Tahoe Fund’s umbrella, was created as a platform for the private community to offer innovative and technological ideas to address wildfire, as well as funding to back such efforts.

“Everybody who’s really engaged is so excited for this because … it will allow us to really fix the forest much more quickly,” Berry said.

TAHOE TECH: ALERT Tahoe (more broadly known as ALERT Wildfire) has cameras set up throughout the Tahoe Basin and beyond to provide early detection of wildfires. Pictured here is the installation of a camera funded by Big George Ventures on the South Shore. Photo courtesy Heidi Hill Drum/Tahoe Prosperity Center

“Fixing the forest” starts with the premise that there are too many trees in Tahoe to begin with due to years of poor land management, clear-cutting, and fire suppression, among other causes.

Too many trees means not enough resources for all, specifically water; too many straws drinking from the same cup. The response to that is thinning out forests to make way for stronger, healthier, and more resilient trees.

All in good faith, all to prep forests against the big fire.

The hiccup comes once the forests are thinned out. Tahoe forests are not known for their high-value timber. Berry explained there’s not any money being made by logging in the Basin. Downing a tree and transporting it to a mill isn’t worth the price of the timber; if anything, it’s a negative cost.

When trees are removed to build more resilient versions, there’s nowhere to take the wood. Thus, slash piles are created: remnants of tree limbs, pine needles, and other miscellaneous bits of nature gathered together.

GOT WOOD? A slash pile, created during forest thinning efforts at Burton Creek State Park, will assist with future prescribed burns. Photo by Alex Hoeft/Moonshine Ink

“I’ve heard over 750,000 of these piles exist, and they’re sitting there and they’re drying out,” Berry said. “The idea is that on good days they’ll be able to be burned in prescribed fires, which obviously has an environmental impact with smoke. It’s kind of gotten to the point now where there’s so much wood we could never burn it all.”

Enter one of three projects the Tahoe Fund is supporting under the new program: re-opening the Carson City biomass facility. The facility, which closed at the end of summer 2010 due to lack of sustainable federal funding, utilized biomass as a renewable energy source in the form of heat or energy.

“I’m not sure it was designed perfectly in the beginning and they realized, ‘Wow, it’s so expensive to get the wood down here to burn to run the energy. It’s just easier and less expensive for us to just buy the energy from the power company,’” Berry said.

Multiple people, fire chiefs and foresters included, have told Berry that the most helpful thing the Smartest Forest Fund could do is get the Carson City biomass facility up and running — a location a lot closer than the Loyalton biomass facility. It’s not just from an economic point of view that it’s worth funding, but reopening the facility will also be helpful “from a cost avoidance and wildfire reduction standpoint,” according to Berry.

And maybe the single megawatt facility could eventually yield an entire campus for wood products. Those are the innovative ideas the Tahoe Fund is pushing. Additional projects under the Smartest Forest Fund include purchasing acoustic monitoring equipment for owl habitat studies and real-time high-resolution data modeling to run scenarios on forest restoration.

Of course, other local groups are supporting innovative ways to confront forest management and wildfire, and some of the Basin’s technology is already alive and kicking.

“ALERT Tahoe is innovative fire technology,” said Heidi Hill Drum, CEO of the Tahoe Prosperity Center (TPC).

The ALERT Tahoe project, headed by the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, has wildfire-detecting cameras scattered throughout the Tahoe Basin. The cameras feature smoke awareness technology, sending alerts to local fire dispatch centers when fire’s predecessor is sensed.

“We now have 11 total [cameras] that cover the entire Lake Tahoe Basin and region,” Hill Drum explained. “[ALERT Tahoe has] stopped 56 fires before they reached 1 acre in size … The firefighters actually stopped the fires, but the cameras give the firefighters the early intelligence, so they know exactly where to go.”

SMOKESTACKS: A recent prescribed burn near the Prosser OHV staging area and Highway 89 North was caught by multiple ALERT Tahoe cameras, including the Babbitt Peak camera, pictured. The cameras include smoke detection technology, negating the need for 24/7 human monitoring. Photo courtesy ALERT Wildfire

TPC oversaw the fundraising efforts for ALERT Tahoe and continues to manage ongoing camera maintenance. Hill Drum said the best part of the Tahoe project is the community’s support — for example, one camera was funded by Rotary Clubs around the lake, others by Big George Ventures, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District, and the Tahoe Mountain Resort Foundation.

And not only this community is on board; the project’s success has been recognized statewide. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has set aside funding to help 1,000 cameras be installed throughout the state.

“It won’t be 1,000 in one year,” Hill Drum said, “That would be way too much. But the goal is 1,000 cameras across the [state], and it all started here in Tahoe with our efforts.”

Another proponent of spreading ideas beyond the Basin is Brittany Dyer, California’s state director for American Forest and co-lead for the tree mortality working group under Newsom’s Forest Management Task Force. To Dyer, Tahoe is the “sexy place” where money is put because of the large number of tourists in, and advocates for, the area. She wants to look beyond Tahoe’s appeal and plug for the larger landscape, spreading the ideas born in Tahoe statewide.

“As a society, we’ve painted this beautiful picture of a heart, and that sometimes reminds me of the Tahoe area,” she said. “While it’s a beautiful part, it’s all these different veins, all these different things that connect the body to work as a whole and for our forests to work as a whole in California. You can’t just have a heart; you can’t just have lungs — it’s really the interconnectivity of all these things.”

Community groups will have more opportunities to contribute ideas to the Smartest Forest Fund’s innovation push, in Tahoe and hopefully, for Dyer, beyond. Berry sees a Request for Proposal going out to public agencies and private sector organizations late fall.

“Let’s raise some private funding; let’s go try out a bunch of things and see what works,” she said. “[Let’s] see if we can’t make Tahoe the smartest forest on the planet.”

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Alex Hoeft
Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, you'll usually find her reading a murder mystery, pounding the pavement on a run, or eternally throwing the ball for her dog.