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Prescribed Burns

Why Does the Forest Service Use Prescribed Burns?

An Interview with Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, TNF Fire Chief


Why does the Forest Service use prescribed burns in the Tahoe National Forest?

A.  The Forest Service uses prescribed burns to reduce the amount of hazardous fuels or undergrowth in strategic areas in the National Forest.  These areas are adjacent to communities or border travel ways that can provide escape routes and areas where firefighters can take a stand against a wildfire. 

Prescribed fires are an important way to introduce fire back into the ecosystem.  We initiate prescribed burns in cooler weather so that the fire burns with less severity.  Less severity means generally that less vegetation/fuel is burned which produces less smoke.  Burning in cooler conditions is important for soil productivity in that more duff litter is left on the ground after burning.  Burning can also help release various nutrients and seems to improve conditions for soil microbes.  Moderate to low intensity burns can also benefit the surviving vegetation by reducing the competition for water/nutrients.

Isn’t it risky to use fire?

A.  Prescribed burns are initiated when weather conditions meet a very tight set of prescriptions such as temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity and amount of moisture in the vegetation.  As fire professionals, we work to minimize the risk through extensive weather monitoring and good computer modeling to help predict the potential for fire spread and intensity.  Experienced crews are well versed in applying fire to the ground to regulate the rate of spread, reduce the amount of smoke, and maintain options to slow or stop the burn.   And we always have contingency crews/equipment available if necessary.

Why doesn’t the Forest Service use other techniques to reduce the buildup of understory vegetation?

A.  We do.  In fact, we use several techniques – some by themselves and some in combinations.  We thin overly dense stands of trees, use a masticator which is like a mower/chipper, hand pile the vegetation and burn the piles, or underburn.  We may use one or several of these treatments in a specific unit. 

What about smoke?

A.  We work with the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District and other districts to coordinate our burns.  They have extensive expertise in air flow dynamics throughout Nevada County and surrounding counties.  They also have increasingly complex and accurate weather predictive services to minimize smoke for local communities.  As we all realize, by burning during the cooler months, we can reduce the amount of fire prone vegetation and thus the intensity of potential catastrophic wildfires which pump out significantly more smoke and for longer duration than a prescribed fire.  If weather conditions change and cause smoke to flow toward communities, we all work together to shut down the burn or burn less acres.  It is to everyone’s advantage to have successful burns and reduce the hazardous vegetation in key areas of the local National Forest.