USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station


Pacific Southwest Research Station
800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011

(510) 559-6300

United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Effects of Pile Burning on Soil and Water Quality

Full title: Effects of pile burning in the Tahoe basin on soil and water quality


Lead Researchers: Ken Hubbert and Matt Busse, U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station; Steve Overby, U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station


Pile burning has been adopted by most agencies to reduce fuels and fire hazard in the Tahoe basin. From 1998 to 2007, a total of 11,708 acres have been mechanically- or hand-thinned with resulting slash piled and burned. Whether this practice results in detrimental changes in soil and water quality across a significant percentage of the treated area is unclear. Concern for the ecological effects of pile burning has been raised as soil temperatures of 400°C have been measured beneath large slash piles, with significant changes in soil physical, chemical, and biological properties observed. High soil temperatures are known to kill soil organisms, seeds, and plant roots, while destroying organic matter and altering water infiltration rates and nutrient cycling. Heat-induced changes also affect soil nitrate and phosphate status and facilitate their movement in surface and subsurface flow, resulting in broad implications for lake functions, processes, and management. Guidelines for pile burn size, spacing, and distance from stream environment zones are especially needed in the Tahoe basin. This study will quantify the downward heat pulse for an assortment of pile sizes and conditions typical of Tahoe basin burning. We will monitor the resilience of key soil physical, chemical, and biological properties for a two-year period following pile burning, as well as quantify nitrate and phosphate movement in surface and subsurface runoff.

Expected date of final products: May 2012.
Progress Report available for download Poster Presentation available for download

Schedule of milestones and deliverables
Milestone/Deliverables Start Date End Date Description
Site selection Jun 1, 2009 Aug 1, 2009 Organize site visit with Tahoe agency managers to coordinate the selection of pile burn study units.
Collect pre-burn data and soil samples Aug 2009 Nov 2010
Install equipment and build piles Oct 2009 Nov 2010 Install thermocouples at numerous soil depths; install lysimeters downslope from piles; complete all operations one week prior to burning.
Pile burning Oct 2009 Nov 2010
Collect post-fire soil and lysimeter samples Oct 2009 Mar 2012 Samples collected quarterly for two years post fire.
Laboratory and data analyses Oct 2009 Mar 2012 Soil chemical analyses conducted at Overby (co-PI) lab; soil microbial analyses conducted at Busse (co-PI) lab.
Produce manuscripts and give presentations Oct 2010 May 2012
Submit quarterly progress reports Submit brief progress report to Tahoe Science Program coordinator by the 1st of July, October, January, and April in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Submit final report May 2012
Last Modified: Mar 28, 2013 02:52:07 PM