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Sierra Wildfire Prep Stunted By Federal Shutdown, Heavy Snow

Bree Zender
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Firefighter Mike Morello tends to a prescribed pile burn near Davis Creek.

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently declared a state of emergency and called on the National Guard to speed up forest management ahead of the upcoming wildfire season.

In the Sierra Nevada, federal forest management officials are behind on prescribed fire treatments due to the 35-day partial federal government shutdown, which was followed by a historic snowfall. 

KUNR’s Bree Zender investigates what the US Forest Service has been facing in the past few months of its peak forest treatment season.

Piles of sticks, logs and brush are burning on the eastern side of Washoe Valley.

It’s a sunny day and there’s just a dusting of snow on the ground between pine trees that welcome you to the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It's a solid day for prescribed burns and pile burning, according to Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Firefighter Mike Morello. And these days are hard to come by.

“The risk is real low when we do pile burns,” Morello said, “especially with snow on the ground. You see like this pile is 4 or 5 feet tall, and now there’s half a dozen logs, so the risk of it being catastrophic are real small.”

It’s moist, but not so moist to the point where a fire can’t hold a flame. Morello said before the Forest Service began treating the area around Davis Creek, it was deeply overgrown.

“Lots of little saplings; lots of brush,” Morello said. “We came in and removed 80 percent of the brush around most of the trees, and then came back in and thinned the trees out.”

Fire officials say clearing the brush is meant to prevent wildfires from gaining momentum near Washoe Valley homes.

Credit Bree Zender
Mike Morello, working on a prescribed burn project near Davis Creek.

Most winters, Morello would be working on several of these forest treatment projects, especially prior to the bulk of the Sierra winter snowfall.

But throughout late December and most of January, Morello was sitting at home. He got to spend more time with his kids, but because he was one of the thousands of Forest Service workers to be furloughed, he couldn’t spend time in the woods, trying to prevent the next Sierra town from becoming Paradise, California, where 85 people died in November of last year.

Prior to the partial shutdown, the US Forest Service alone worked on nearly 80 percent of prescribed forest treatment operations in California and the Sierra sections of Nevada. That’s according to data from the Prescribed Fire Information Reporting System, or PFIRS. The majority of the projects are in the Sierra Nevada. Steve Howell manages prescribed burns for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

While some may disagree, he said monitored burns are the most effective way to treat a forest by getting rid of fuel for fires.

“So, fuel for fire would be anything that can burn in the forest,” Howell said, “so it could be pine needles, grass, brush, trees.”

While this may not stop a fire from igniting, Howell said it may prevent a wildfire from gaining momentum and becoming destructive.

“It is our most cost-effective way, and it’s our easiest way, of removing fuels,” Howell said.

According to PFIRS data, in just the three weeks before the shutdown began, federal agencies managed to treat nearly 9,000 acres across California.

And then, on December 23, no one was allowed to show up for work. They didn’t return to work until January 26.

Credit Bree Zender
Data from Prescribed Fire Information Reporting System (PFIRS). Information for prescribed fires that took place on February 11, 2019 was unavailable.

And then…the snow arrived.

Since the government reopened, the Sierra has received a historic record of snow. In fact, some higher elevations around the Tahoe Basin received a happy helping of nearly 600 inches.

At Spooner Summit, sitting at just over 7000 feet, it’s easy to see that the prescribed burns that had been planned can’t happen there now. There’s simply too much snow.

Some of it has melted as the spring temperatures rise. But where I visited, the snow was nearly taller than I am...and I’m 5’ 8”. I struggled to walk on the snow, and I was next to a trailhead sign, which I could barely see the top of.

Credit Bree Zender
The Tahoe region has received a historic amount of snow over the past few months. There's too much snow now for burn projects to move forward in and around Spooner Summit, on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe.

Alex Hoon works for the National Weather Service in Reno. He’s a meteorologist whose job is to work with local firefighters, often helping them decide if it is a safe time to burn or not. Hoon said federal agencies missed multiple peak burn windows for the Sierra during the shutdown--specifically for pile burns, which are a critical type of fire treatment for the mountain range.

“January was a good time, especially if there was snow on the ground in some of the places up in the Sierra where there were piles surrounded by snow,” Hoon said. “Optimal conditions.”

Hoon said you have to wait for the right conditions in order to seize a safe burn window.

Multiple local fire officials agree that with the large snowpack, there’s going to be an extended prescribed burn period later this spring, which sounds like a good thing. But more moisture means more plants, and more plants could mean more fuel.

The overgrowth of forests affects nearly all of the Sierra Nevada, especially in the Tahoe region. And that can especially be a danger in the summer, because of the high level of tourism at the lake.

“Tahoe needs to burn. And I mean that in the sense of the good fire,” said Keegan Schafer. He works with the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District. He’s a 20 year veteran.

"Because we’ve been suppressing fire out of our woods for over 100 years now, the fuels have been allowed to accumulate,” Schafer said. “We keep building in places where probably we shouldn’t be building, and so that issue just compounds the wildfire issue.”

Schafer comes from a fire family. His dad was a fire chief. His brother works in the field, too. He worked the Angora fire, in 2007, which destroyed 280 structures near the southern end of Lake Tahoe.

“That one got to me a little bit because I was born and raised in South Shore,” Schafer said. “Normally, fighting fire can be fun and exciting, but that one was emotional for me because I was driving by houses that my friends, who I grew up with, owned.”

I asked Schafer if he could see something like the Angora Fire happening again in the Tahoe region, with the way the forest is structured.

“Absolutely. 100 percent,” Schafer said. “It’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ ”

On the national level, the US Forest Service said in a statement it is assessing the impact of the shutdown on forest land across the country, but wouldn’t provide further details.

Fire officials across local, state and federal agencies seemed hesitant to make any predictions about the long-term effects of the shutdown. That’s because the reasons why wildfires have become so destructive in recent years are complex.

For now, fire officials are finding any burn window they can until the monitored burn season runs out and turns to wildfire season.

Credit Bree Zender

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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