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Guest Column: 2020 Fire Year highlights importance of forest health


Submitted by Danelle D. Harrison, USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit

December is a special time of year when our thoughts turn to family and friends, and communities come together to celebrate the season. It also marks the end of the year. And what a year it was. Together, we experienced unprecedented events including a record-breaking wildland fire year in the Pacific Southwest Region. 

The 2020 Fire Year ramped up quickly and during the mid-August fire siege in California, nearly 10,000 firefighting personnel were deployed to active incidents. Our neighbors in Australia, Canada, Israel and Mexico, and the U.S. Department of Defense, provided hundreds of additional firefighters to assist our strained fire resources. On Aug. 18, the Northern California Preparedness level (dictated by fuel and weather conditions, fire activity, and fire suppression resource availability throughout the country) rose to 5, the highest level of fire activity and stayed there for an unprecedented 44 days.

By mid-November, approximately 10,062 fires burned nearly 4.2 million acres in California. This made 2020 the largest wildfire year recorded in California’s modern history and tested the resilience of weary local, state and federal firefighting agencies. California also experienced the first large fire that exceeded one million acres. 

The 2020 Fire Year also led to an unprecedented closure of all 18 National Forests in California for several weeks due to dangerous wildfire conditions. National Forest lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin were fortunate to not experience any large fires but did record a total of 48 fires, 38 of which were caused by human ignition.  

Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership

Over the last 10 years, the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and our many partners have accomplished significant goals of the Environmental Improvement Program (EIP) by completing forest thinning and prescribed fire treatments on approximately 84,599 acres of forested lands around Lake Tahoe. Forest health is a chief focus area for the EIP, an unparalleled partnership working across physical and regulatory boundaries to achieve the environmental goals of the region in and around Lake Tahoe.

The Forest Service and our partners will continue to plan and implement projects such as the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership to increase the pace and scale of these critical ecological restoration treatments.

Thank you firefighters sign in northern California during the 2020 Fire Year.
Thank you firefighters sign in northern California during the 2020 Fire Year. Image: Trevor Bexon

Forest thinning and prescribed fire treatments are proven to be effective methods in reducing excess vegetation, mitigating wildfire behavior, recycling nutrients back into the soil and reintroducing low-intensity fire back onto the landscape. Low-intensity fire plays an especially important role in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem and can help prevent large wildfires that result in landscape altering destruction.

Both the 2007 Angora and 2016 Emerald fires were key examples of how forest thinning and prescribed fire treatments reduce the severity of wildland fires. In both cases, when out of control flames driven by fierce winds reached previously thinned and treated areas of the forest, the flames dropped from the forest crown to the forest floor. Once on the ground, firefighters could extinguish the flames allowing more trees to survive.

West Shore forests are overly dense making them susceptible to high severity fire, insect infestations and disease. The Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership aims to restore forests, meadows, streams, and wildlife habitat across 59,000 acres of forest from Emerald Bay to Tahoe City and is taking an all lands approach to restoring the resilience of this treasured landscape.

Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership key strategies include: 

  • Increasing the pace and scale of forest thinning and prescribed fire treatments to reduce wildfire risks to communities and to wildlife;
  • restoring meadows, managing invasive species, increasing habitat connectivity, and supporting native plants and wildlife threatened by a changing climate;
  • restoring streams to reduce erosion, improving native species habitat, and increasing watershed resilience to flooding and drought conditions;
  • supporting and building resilience into the local economy;
  • enhancing engagement with the Washoe Tribe;
  • working collaboratively with land managers to meet objectives across land ownership boundaries;
  • increasing smoke forecasting, agency coordination, and public outreach to minimize smoke impacts from prescribed and managed wildfire; and
  • managing roads and trails for long-term stability and watershed protection.

Learn more about next steps for this innovative project and sign up for Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership project updates at https://www.nationalforests.org/who-we-are/regional-offices/california-program/laketahoewest.

Looking Ahead 

Although large fire activity began to diminish across Northern California in late-November, drought conditions are expected to continue with significant fire potential and activity anticipated to last through early spring 2021.

Fortunately, we can all play a role when it comes to supporting forest health projects that mitigate wildfire risk. The Forest Service and our partners will continue to plan and implement ecologically based projects. Members of the public can help us reach our goals by supporting these projects and learning how low-intensity fire in the form of prescribed fire treatments is beneficial for the landscape, forests will look different after treatment, and occasional smoke from prescribed fire projects is worth the benefits they provide.

Homeowners can take steps to complement the work being done by the Forest Service and our partners by properly managing the vegetation surrounding private property. Homeowners are encouraged to complete and maintain defensible space improvements and discuss the importance of defensible space with neighbors. 

Having defensible space around homes increases the chance that homes will survive the next wildfire. Learn how to request a free defensible space inspection from local fire districts and learn more about keeping homes safe before, during and after the next wildfire at tahoelivingwithfire.com. As we all know, it’s not a matter of “if” the next wildfire will occur, it’s a matter of “when.”

My sincere thanks go out to our many partners for their continued support of Tahoe Basin forest health treatments and to local, state and federal wildland firefighters for their hard work, dedication and tireless efforts to save lives, property and precious natural resources. 

While we all wish that the 2020 Fire Year remains unprecedented, recent trends have shown that we will continue to experience significant and catastrophic wildfire in the years to come. We must all do our part as stewards of these Tahoe Basin lands, to create and sustain resilient forests and communities for the benefit of current and future generations. ~D.D.

Danelle D. Harrison is the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the USDA Forest Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

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