Kingsbury powerline work to continue in May

Power lines travel parallel to Chimney Rock Road north of Kingsbury Grade on Feb. 15.

Power lines travel parallel to Chimney Rock Road north of Kingsbury Grade on Feb. 15.
Photo by Kurt Hildebrand.

A series of powerful storms sent trees into powerlines cutting power to thousands of Lake Tahoe residents for days at a time.

With heavy wet snow, there wasn’t much chance those branches would start a fire this winter, but under drier, windy conditions, power lines in trees have started fatal fires.

Work to clear trees around the power lines paralleling Chimney Rock Road and following power lines down the mountain was part of the NV Energy Resilience Corridors Project on the east side of the Lake Tahoe Basin conducted last fall.

The first phase of the work included removing all trees withing 15-21 feet of power poles, while the second phase included removing “trees with structural defects that have the potential to strike utility infrastructure, reduce fuels and thin to desired conditions” for 15-175 feet on each side of the power line.

The work prompted complaints from residents and local officials.

“We are very familiar with the work done on Chimney Rock,” said Tahoe Douglas Fire Chief Scott Lindgren. “I will say that the contractors made some mistakes in the beginning that we had to mitigate and that the public messaging should have been better. It will be moving forward.”

Kingsbury Grade General Improvement District Manager Mitch Dion was more blunt, saying the work was amateurish.

“We have good examples of harvesting trees and improving water quality, this was not one,” he said.

Dion said that he felt the removal went beyond what he would reasonably expect.

“Supervisory controls to ensure the trees selected and minimizing the soil disruption was not evident,” he said. “Logically, you would expect more aggressive removal nearest the lines, but that activity went beyond those reasonable limits in both riparian areas and even on private property.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service, NV Energy subcontractor VM West worked on the project last fall.

Work on a third phase affecting 175 to 1,000 feet on either side of the power lines is expected to resume in May and continue until October or when it’s completed.

The work is excluded from an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment as long as it doesn’t exceed 10,000 acres including no more than 3,000 acres using mechanical thinning.

“Because recent destructive fires demonstrate the urgent need to reduce forest fuel loads, I am using the category specifically created by Congress for this purpose on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit portion of the project,” Forest Supervisor Erick J. Walker wrote in April 2022.

Forest Service officials said the contract is paid by acres or miles depending on work completed. The contractor is allowed to sell the timber and biomass collected.

According to the Forest Service, the felled trees were taken to a site off Foothill Road just south of Muller Lane.

“Lower quality materials may be sold as firewood or biomass, and higher quality timber may be sold as sawlogs to a sawmill,” said Tahoe Management Unit Vegetation Staff Officer Victor Lyon. “However, the value of the goods minimally offsets the cost of the services being performed. No revenue has been generated to date and little is expected due to the high volume of materials already on the market.”

Lindgren said after the work is cleaned up and maintained, it will help keep residents safe from wildfire.

“We have a very unhealthy forest due to mismanagement and the effects of a long drought,” Lindgren said. “We absolutely need to do fuel reduction and get some legitimate fuel breaks completed before it’s too late. My job is to do everything in my power to protect the public and this beautiful place that we all love so much.”

U.S. Forest Service personnel conducted pile burning in Genoa and along the Sierra Front in an effort to clear dead wood and brush while snow remains on the ground.

Wet conditions have improved drought conditions in the Sierra and much of Carson Valley to abnormally dry, according to the drought monitor.

However, all that moisture will provide water to a new crop of light flashy fuels once the snow melts off. Wet winters often result in spring desert flower blooms, which provide fuel for wildfires when they dry out.

In the wake of the 2018 Camp Fire, Nevada legislators and NV Energy worked out a plan where the power company would fund firefighting crews across the region to clear vegetation, including trees, from around power lines.

The Natural Disaster Protection Plan prepared by NV Energy was approved by the Public Utilities Commission in August 2020.


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