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Protecting Wildland Communities

Forest Service works hard to reduce hazardous fuels, wildfire threats to communities

By Andrew Avitt, U.S. Forest Service  - Pacific Southwest Region
A picture of a treated stand after the completion of the Montreal project around neighborhoods in South Lake Tahoe. (Photo courtesy of Amy Jirka, The Great Basin Institute)

For those who love the outdoors, the occasional weekend trip will not do. Instead, many have chosen to live as close to nature as possible, on the edge of forests. One in three homes in the U.S. is now located in a wildland community, areas often referred to as the wildland-urban interface, where developed and undeveloped land meet.

The benefits to this lifestyle choice are many: recreation opportunities abound, quality drinking water, and clean air. There is also a dangerous drawback that 70,000 urban and wildland communities across the country face every year—the threat of wildfire.

Wildfires at the Wildland-Urban Interface

Increased development of wildland communities, climate change, and drought contributed to a four-fold increase in the number of residential and commercial structures destroyed by wildfire between 2014 and 2020.

“Hazardous fuels treatments in forests around communities and neighborhoods has never been more important,” said Victor Lyon, a Forest Service vegetation management staff officer on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “And when we treat the land, we not only reduce wildfire threat to those communities but improve forest health and support wildlife habitat.”

As a long-time wildlife biologist and vegetation manager, Lyon knows the risk of wildfire threat to wildland communities. Wildfire also affected Lyon personally, when the Angora Fire in 2007 destroyed a house he planned to buy in California.

Since the Angora Fire in 2007, the Forest Service treated about 35,000 acres surrounding communities and plan to treat 5,000 more acres per year. Though types of hazardous fuel treatments vary, mechanical thinning, prescribed fire, and pile burning all aim at a common outcome -- reducing the amount of fuel available to burn.

These treated areas can slow or even stop extreme wildfire behavior. Treated areas cause the fire to move from treetops to the forest floor, which enables firefighters to better contain the blaze. This was the case in another California wildfire near South Lake Tahoe when the Caldor Fire entered an area that had been treated and firefighters saved the Christmas Valley community.

Call in the Experts

A chipper turns excess vegetation into chips to accelerate decomposition and reduce fire risk (Photo courtesy of Amy Jirka, The Great Basin Institute)

Forest Service fuel treatment projects start with two simple yet very complicated, questions: What wildfire protections do the land and surrounding communities need? What fuel treatments will have the best outcome?

The answers require expertise and input from scientists and land managers. Specialists in silviculture, forest planning and engineering, heritage resources, fisheries, and trails, among others, all contribute to the design of a project. Their different perspectives lend a more holistic project design, when leads to a more balanced plan with better results.

“Basically, when we manage the forest, we are trying to reach a desired condition that's appropriate for that stand,” said Rita Mustatia, a Forest Service silviculturist. “In most cases means making the stand resilient, not just to fire but also to invasive species and disease.”

Mustatia has over 25 years' experience as a professional silviculturist, or tree scientist, for the Forest Service. She collects information and conducts analysis on tree stands, information that project managers use to determine overall forest health and what types of treatments may be needed.

For example, a Jefferey pine stand on the South Lake Tahoe Basin had trees spaced 15 to 20 feet apart.

The stand was suffering more than Mustatia initially realized. “There was evidence that the trees were not doing well, from disease, and in some areas from bark beetles.”

Years of fire suppression allowed vegetation in non-fire areas to build up, and forests grew denser. It’s a common misconception: more trees equate to a healthier, more vibrant forest. But more trees mean more competition for water.

“It's like a glass of water with 100 straws,” said Mustatia. “The trees are all consuming water at the same time and during times of drought with a shortage of water the effects are only compounded.”

The dense, dry tree stand posed a serious fire threat to the nearby communities of Montreal, Cold Creek, High Meadows, Golden Bear, Susquehana, Washoan, Hekpa and Mandan - home to about 5,000 people.

Mustatia and her Forest Service Team planned and implemented the Monteal Project, which thinned 465 acres of the forest until the trees were 30 to 50 feet apart. Now the forest is healthier and the nearby communities safer from the threat of wildfire.

Overstocked, dense forests, drought stricken, and susceptible to disease are not just conditions unique to the South Lake Tahoe Basin, they persist across many western forests, and are critical to treat to mitigate extreme wildfire behavior, the kind that threatens communities in the wildland-urban interface.

It Takes a Community

Landscapes needing treatment are often large and encompass many different land ownerships. The Forest Service works closely with other federal agencies, Tribes, private landowners and organizations. The Montreal project was done together in partnership with the California Tahoe Conservancy, local industry, and the Great Basin Institute.

“The successful completion of the Montreal Whole Tree Project is an important milestone toward accomplishing the South Tahoe Fuels Treatment Project, a treatment area of 3,737 acres in the Wildland Urban Interface,” said Jerry Keir, co-founder and chief executive director of the Great Basin Institute.

The Great Basin Institute, a regional environmental nonprofit based in Reno, Nevada, is a long-time partner in the Tahoe Basin, supporting similar projects across 11 national forests in California.

“Our partnership with The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit spans over almost a quarter of a century, and we are grateful for, and inspired by, the ongoing accomplishments to improve forest health and advance applied science for the adaptive management of our forest resources,” said Kier.

The Institute has raised significant matching funds for conservation efforts, having signed more than $165 million dollars in grants and agreements on behalf of public lands in the Western U.S. In California, the organization provided more than $9 million dollars in non-federal funds for national forests and parks in California.

These fiscal contributions further the organization’s ability to offer additional services, including analysis required by the National Environmental Protection Act and resource surveys that evaluate the potential effects of forestry projects on land, river systems, air quality, and wildlife. Funds also provide supplemental resources for the implementation phases of reforestation, salvage operations, and habitat improvement projects, while deploying more than 120 foresters, archeologists, wildlife biologists, and hydrologists this season alone.

“Partners are filling a vital role in supporting critical post-fire recovery efforts,” added Keir.

The Institute, with the support of partners and subcontractors, provide environmental assessments on the effects of fire for the Windy, French, Caldor and Dixie fires in the coming year, expediting permitting while raising funds and adding staff to accelerate treatments across several large landscapes.

Achieving the desired pace and scale of land treatments requires the support of states, Tribes, local, non-government organizations, and private contractors. No one organization can work alone to change the severe fire conditions we are experiencing. We must work together to shift the future for our forests.

Wildfire Crisis Strategy

America’s forests are in a state of fire emergency, as nearly a quarter of the contiguous United States remains at moderate to very high risk of severe wildfires. In response, the Forest Service established a Wildfire Crisis Strategy for dramatically increasing fuels and forest health treatments by up to four times current treatment levels in the West, which bears the brunt of the risk.

Wildfire mitigation treatments – whether controlled burns, logging, or mechanical thinning – are a vital part of the Forest Service’s commitment to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of all of America’s forests.

Resources: For more information on the Montreal project please visit (Website), and for more information on the larger Forest Service strategy to reduce wildfire threats to communities please visit Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.

Additional resource: Wildland Urban Interface: A Look at Issues and Resolutions.