Smoke on the Water

Washoe Fire

by Tim Hauserman

Since the first few smaller winter storms are now under our belt, it’s time to move from road construction season to controlled burn season. In an effort to reduce the potential for a catastrophic fire in the Tahoe region, a slew of government land managers conduct controlled burns each fall and into the winter to reduce the amount of fuel that could feed a fire, or to stop a fire in it’s tracks when it happens.

For the most part a controlled burn is the last stage of a tree thinning project. The larger trees are removed for lumber or firewood, and the smaller trees and brush are assembled into piles. These piles sit out to dry anywhere from a few months to a few years until the burning agencies have the time and the right atmospheric conditions to burn the piles. In Tahoe, that means once the fire danger has abated but before multiple feet of snow cover the ground. Frequently you will see the fires light up just before an impending storm, which allows the fuel load to be reduced and a high level of assurance that the precipitation coming in will be sure to put the fire out.

(Area burned by the Washoe Fire in 2007)

The best evidence I’ve seen of the importance of reducing the fuel load in the Tahoe basin was the Washoe Fire near Sunnyside ten years ago. The fire started from a BBQ on a back deck on Washoe Blvd in the Tahoe Park area. Heave winds raced the fire up the hill through thick forest into the neighborhoods above. The fire had burned six homes in a short time and many more were threatened, all the way to downtown Tahoe City, when it entered an area which had recently been thinned and the fire fighters were able to get a handle on it.

In the Tahoe basin Lake Valley, North Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Douglas fire protection districts, as well as California State Parks, California Tahoe Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service are all set to burn in the next few weeks, including in these locations:

D.L. Bliss State Park
Carnelian Bay
Kings Beach
Incline Village
Diamond Peak Ski Resort area
Glenbrook
Upper and Lower Kingsbury Grade
Near Lake Tahoe airport