It’s been seven months since the Emerald Fire burned 176 acres of forest on the South Shore, and reforestation efforts are already underway.
Under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, volunteers with the nonprofit Sugar Pine Foundation have supplied and planted approximately 800 six-inch sugar pine seedlings over the past two weekends.
Other native conifers, including jeffrey pines and incense cedars, have also been planted in areas along California Route 89 near Cascade Road.
“We have a very short window for when we can plant seedlings in the Tahoe Basin,” said Paul Guarnaccia, unit assistant silviculturist and organizer of the reforestation effort for the Emerald Fire.
Moisture levels, temperature and competition from the regrowth of brush can all factor into a seedling’s survival, which has an average mortality rate of 45 percent in the early stages of stand reestablishment.
The plan for the reforestation of the area, which was released April 17 for public comment, is to plant 10 acres with seedlings this spring, up to 50 acres next spring, and up to 15 acres in 2019. About 300 seedlings are planted per acre.
“The idea is not to replant every acre. It’s to replant the bulk of the acres that had trees on them, but we also want to allow some areas that were originally brush to come back,” explained Guarnaccia.
While many of the dead trees were removed by CalTrans shorty after the fire, others have been left. Some of the burned trees still have a chance of surviving.
Due to the intensity of the burn, however, natural tree regrowth isn’t likely.
“Usually you have a seed bank that comes back naturally, but because of the severity of the burn, a lot of the trees’ crowns, where the cones would be, were completely consumed so that natural seed bank doesn’t exist,” said Guarnaccia.
It will take anywhere from 100 to 125 years for the area to return to what it was.
The Emerald Fire started Oct. 14 and burned 96 acres of National Forest land, 79 acres of private land, and less than an acre of California State land. It forced the evacuation of more than 500 people for several days, though no structures were damaged and no fatalities occurred.
“The winds were probably 40 mph, so it burned really hot and really fast,” said unit Battalion Chief Kyle Jacobson. “Because of the high winds it was really damaging to the forest, except in one area where we had done some fuels treatment and some prescribed fire.”
The official cause of the fire was the ignition of a live green tree, which snapped due to high winds and fell through power lines.
“It was one of those storms where right before it gets really windy, then it starts snowing, so our guys were putting out hot fire with 20-foot flame lengths and getting snowed on,” said Jacobson.
By Oct. 17, the fire was 100 percent contained thanks to the efforts of multiple firefighting agencies.
For Jacobson, the Emerald Fire solidified the collaborative effort to firefighting and fuels management in Lake Tahoe is the right approach.
“Even if as an agency the Forest Service were out doing hundreds of thousands of acres every year, if the private land right next to the Forest Service land is not treated, if the state land next to the Forest Service land isn’t treated, it makes all of our treatments less effective,” said Jacobson.
The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, formed in 2008, includes representatives from Tahoe Basin fire districts, CAL FIRE, and other agencies from California and Nevada. The team works to prioritize prescribed burns and fuel reduction operations by pooling resources.
But no matter how many preventive measures are taken to reduce the severity of wildfires, the fact remains the Tahoe Basin is a fire-dependent ecosystem.
“Even with the work we had done in here, there is nothing you can do to prevent this in some respects,” said Guarnaccia.