Prior to European settlement, lightning and Native Americans frequently ignited fires in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Historically, most of the area within the Tahoe Douglas Fire District would have experienced a low intensity fire every 8-13 years. These fires typically consumed the pine needles, brush, and small trees, without causing the type of widespread devastation we commonly associate with wildland fires.
There are two types of prescribed activities that one will see within the Tahoe Basin. The first is pile burning. Pile burning is used on sites where the topography makes it unpractical to remove or chip the cut trees, slash and/or brush. The second type of prescribed fire activity is an understory or broadcast burn. In this type of prescription, low intensity fire is allowed to burn across the burn plot. Prescribed fire is used as a fuels management tool and to mimic the historical fire regime.
Prescribed fire has a number of benefits over other types of vegetation management. Prescribed fire creates fuel reduction treatments with longer maintenance intervals. Prescribed fire also stimulates new growth in the brush; this new growth is a valuable source of browse for animals such as deer. Prescribed fire also temporarily creates areas of bare soil. Bare soil is necessary for the regeneration of desirable tree species such as Jeffrey pine and sugar pine.
All prescribed fires are conducted in accordance with a carefully developed prescription. This prescription is documented in a burn plan. The burn plan describes desired outcomes such as the consumption of the material to be burned, the allowable amount of scorch in surrounding trees and smoke impacts. Smoke impacts are carefully monitored. As a general rule, prescribed fires are usually conducted when there is some wind to aid in smoke dispersion. The burn plan also provides a prescription for the allowable atmospheric conditions under which the prescribed fire can be conducted. Another component of the plan is fire control. All fires are conducted under atmospheric conditions that will minimize the risk of the fire escaping containment. The burn plan also specifies what type of suppression resources will be present during the active burning. Prescribed fires are carefully monitored to ensure that all parameters of the prescription are met.
At times, fire will be allowed to burn overnight. This is done to allow for the complete consumption of the materials. Depending upon the atmospheric conditions, the fire may not be staffed during the overnight hours. This is a frequent source of calls to the Fire District. At night, the fire from even a small burn pile looks large and ominous. Citizens are encouraged to consider atmospheric conditions and the presence of other mitigating factors such as snow on the ground prior to calling the Fire District.