Growing Wildland Communities and Reducing Wildfire Threat

Andrew Avitt

Public Affairs Specialist

Pacific Southwest Regional Office

Nov. 8, 2022

A view of Echo Summit from a trail showing homes surrounded by trees.

A view near the top of the Warr Trail looking back at Echo Summit. South Lake Tahoe is home to more than 20,000 residents, with many more living in the surrounding wildland urban interface. (USDA Forest Service photo by Victor Lyon)

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. There are many benefits to this lifestyle choice — recreation opportunities abound, quality drinking water, and clean air. There are also drawbacks, one that wildland communities across the country face every year — the threat of wildfire. 

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 private lands sit adjacent to fire-adapted ecosystems. More than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire in these areas.

From 2014 to 2020, the five-year average of structures destroyed by wildfire rose from 2,873 to 12,255, according to a Forest Service Strategy “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.” The four-fold increase is attributed to increased development in wildland areas and effects from climate change and drought.

Photo of a house with burnt trees around it and snow in the mountains in the far distance.

The 2007 Angora Fire burned 3,100 acres damaging or destroying hundreds of structures in South Lake Tahoe. (USDA Forest Service photo by Lisa Herron)

Victor Lyon, a Vegetation Management Staff Officer with the Forest Service on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, knows the risk of wildfire threat to these communities. Professionally, he’s spent 15 years as a wildlife biologist and the past six years working in vegetation management. The threat of wildfire has also impacted Lyon personally, when the Angora Fire in 2007 destroyed a home he was preparing to buy.

Hazardous fuels treatments in forests around communities and neighborhoods has never been more important, said Lyon. “And when we treat the land, we not only reduce wildfire threat to those communities but improve forest health and support wildlife habitat.”

An overhead view of South Lake Tahoe.

Overhead view of Lake Tahoe. The wildland urban interface, where private lands sit adjacent to fire-adapted ecosystems More than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire in these areas.

Since the Angora Fire, land managers have treated an estimated 35,000 acres surrounding communities and are planning to treat 5,000 more acres per year in the area. Though types of hazardous fuel treatments vary, mechanical thinning, prescribed fire, and pile burning all are aimed at a common outcome, reducing the amount of fuel available to burn. 

These treated areas, when faced with wildfire, have shown to reduce extreme wildfire behavior as was the case in South Lake Tahoe at Christmas Valley. The Caldor Fire entered a treated area, diminishing the intensity of the fire and enabling firefighters to save the community there.

One recently completed treatment, known as the Montreal project, covers 465 acres. It’s a smaller snapshot of a larger effort to mitigate the future wildfire effects around communities, said Lyon.

A map of South Lake Tahoe showing treated areas.

This map shows in, yellow, the areas to be treated around communities in South Lake Tahoe. Reducing excess vegetation around communities aims to reduce the amount of fuel to burn. (USDA map courtesy of Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit)

The Montreal project, like the many other land treatments the Forest Service completes each year, starts with two simple questions that eventually result in complex solutions, “What do the land and surrounding communities need and what treatments will have the best outcome,” said Lyon.

The Montreal project area was designed to protect a number of communities including Montreal, Cold Creek, High Meadows, Golden Bear, Susquehana, Washoan, Hekpa and Mandan, home to approximately 5,000 people.

“The need in the case of the Montreal project is to reduce fuels in forests adjacent to communities, but that does not mean we don’t take into account forest ecosystem health, wildlife habitat, trails, cultural resources, soil and water,” said Lyon.

A stand of trees with cleared underbrush near power lines.

A picture of a treated stand after the completion of the Montreal project around neighborhoods in South Lake Tahoe. (USDA Forest Service photo by Amy Jirka)

Projects like the Montreal Project, require the expertise and input from scientists and land managers alike. Silviculturists, forest planners, forest engineers, heritage specialists, fisheries specialists, trails specialists, and other experts all contribute to the design of a project.

“We bring all of these people with all these different areas of expertise together when planning a project because we want to really understand the project,” said Lyon. “Different specialists with different perspectives tend to bring a more holistic project design, and it tends to bring a more balanced design with better results.”

Overstocked Forests — A Glass of Water with 100 Straws

One of those experts working on the Montreal project, Rita Mustatia, has been with the Forest Service for 25 years and is currently working as a silviculturist. Her realm of expertise is all things trees; she collects information and conducts analysis on tree stands, information that project managers then use to determine overall forest health and what types of treatments may be needed.

“Basically, when we manage the forest, we are trying to reach a desired condition that's appropriate for that stand,” said Mustatia, “which in most cases means making the stand resilient, not just to fire but also to insects and disease.”

Lack of fire on the landscape in the past due to fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up and also for the forest to grow denser than these stands have ever been historically.

A wood chipper shoots chips in a forest.

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

For example, a Jefferey pine stand like the ones in the Montreal project area might have had tree spacing of 30 to 50 feet historically. When Mustatia initially visited the stand, before the area was treated, the area was much denser with trees every 15 to 20 feet.

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.”

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

Overstocked and 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 treatment is critical to mitigate extreme wildfire behavior, the kind that threatens communities in the wildland urban interface.

The landscape that needs treatment is often so large and encompassing so many different land ownerships that the Forest Service works closely with other federal agencies, Tribes, private landowners and organizations. The Montreal project brought together the California Tahoe Conservancy, local industry, and the Great Basin Institute.

The Great Basin Institute, a regional environmental nonprofit based out of Reno, Nevada, has partnered with the Forest Service for decades in the Tahoe Basin while supporting similar projects across 11 national forests in California.

Jerry Keir, co-founder and Chief Executive Director of the Great Basin Institute, said that organizations like the Institute are increasingly needed providing support for agencies during a time of escalating need and workforce shortages.

“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 Keir.

"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."

A map showing fire risk areas in Western U.S.

Community exposure is a central factor in the strategy to confront the wildfire crisis. Above a map identifying high risk Firesheds to be treated as a part of the Wildfire Crisis Strategy. (Map courtesy of USDA Forest Service)

The Institute has raised significant matching funds for conservation efforts, having won over 165 million dollars in grants and agreements on behalf of public lands in the western US. In California, the organization has brought over 9 million dollars in non-federal funds for California national forests and parks.  

These additional funds support the Institute in offering additional services, including NEPA analysis and resource surveys that evaluate the potential impacts of forestry projects on land, river systems, air quality, and wildlife. 

“Partners are filling a vital role in supporting critical post-fire recovery efforts,” added Keir. The Institute, with the support of partners and subcontractors, will expedite permitting, add staff to accelerate treatments across several large landscapes, and provide environmental assessments for the Windy, French, Caldor, and Dixie fires in the coming year.

Similar work to reduce hazardous fuels and wildfire threat to communities will continue in the Lake Tahoe Basin, across the state, and the country in the coming years. To protect communities and support forest health, the Forest Service and its partners aim to treat 20 million acres on National Forest System lands and up to an additional 30 million acres of other federal, state, Tribal, and private lands in the next 10 years.

For more information on the Montreal project please visit the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit website. To learn more about 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.