That’s the concept that California Tahoe Conservancy forester Stewart McMorrow is explaining as he walks through a stand of trees opened up by a recent prescribed fire.
Kneeling in the ashy soil, McMorrow points to another benefit of the controlled burn apart from the forest fire buffer it will provide for the nearby condominiums and homes in Carnelian Canyon.
The fire releases seeds, changes soil chemistry that causes fungus to grow, and sparks a flurry of wildlife activity, says McMorrow, a former wildlife biologist.
McMorrow is in charge of putting flames to a productive use in patches of conservancy forest around the Tahoe Basin, and his main focus lately has been 146 acres of conservancy property in Carnelian Canyon. The conservancy burned eight acres last year, and is preparing to burn another 20 acres next year.
Some members of the neighborhood have embraced the prescribed burns, realizing the thinned forest will provide an important forest-fire buffer and lead to a healthier environment.
“We support their efforts 100 percent,” said Geoff Simcoe, chairman of the forestry committee of the neighboring Carnelian Woods Homeowners Association.
Others have complained about the lack of communication before last year’s burn and the charred saplings, scorched branches, and other remnants of the fire, said McMorrow.
Those complaints led McMorrow to work hard informing neighbors about the conservancy’s plans and soliciting input from local homeowners.
After 400 mailed notices about a Nov. 8 public forum on the conservancy’s plans, McMorrow hopes the word is out.
“They are doing an outreach that they possibly did not do a good enough job of in the past,” said Simcoe. “And that is a step in the right direction.”
Fire is one of several tools that the state agency uses to tackle the enormous task of managing 4,700 diverse parcels of land around the Tahoe Basin.
“It’s a huge management responsibility,” said McMorrow.
The burning replicates the natural cycle of fire that scientific data shows occurred approximately every five to 20 years in the Tahoe basin, before the 1900s when fires were quickly doused.
Before wildfires were put out by humans, an estimated 8,000 acres of forest burned each year in the Tahoe Basin, according to the conservancy.
But on some conservancy parcels, including a tract of land above the Tahoe City Golf Course, the conservancy opts for mechanical thinning, using machines which chew small trees and brush to a pulp and deposit the woody material in a layer on the forest floor.
It’s a process that lets the slash decompose back into the soil, and experts are still studying its effects on the forest.
But for forest thinning and health, nothing is proven like the natural flames that the forest has become dependent on over the years, said McMorrow.