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Scientists Study the Effects of Pile Burning in the Lake Tahoe Basin

Photo of Burn piles in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Carol Shestak,  Matt Busse, USDA Forest ServiceBurn piles in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Carol Shestak, Matt Busse, USDA Forest ServiceSnapshot : Burning piles of conifer slash is a common fuel reduction practice in forests of the western United States that may detrimentally effect soil and water quality. A team of Forest Service scientists evaluated this concern in a three-year study of soil chemical, physical, and biological properties beneath burns ranging widely in pile size and fuel composition.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Busse, Matt D. 
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2013
Highlight ID : 542

Summary

The risk of large-scale, high severity wildfire in western coniferous forests is unmistakable due to a combination of past fire suppression, drought, logging practices, and a growing wildland-urban interface. Reducing unhealthy fuel accumulations, therefore, is a priority of federal, state, and local fire management agencies. Pile burning offers a rapid and cost-effective method of eliminating fuels and is an important tool for reducing the hazard of high-intensity wildfire. Little science exists on how the downward heat pulse during pile burning affects soil physical, chemical, and biological properties. Also, little knowledge exists of post-fire movement of nutrients in overland or subsurface water flow. A main concern is whether heat-induced soil changes will increase nutrient movement and ultimately contribute to eutrophication of streams and lakes. The scientists delivered rigorously tested results to land managers and the public about potential impacts of pile burning on soil and water quality across numerous watersheds in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The information included assessments of the current burn pile condition in the Basin, soil temperatures reached during burning, fire-induced changes in soil quality and productivity, and the extent of nutrient release to stream waters when burning in riparian zones. The findings revealed that pile burning produced inconsequential changes in soil and water quality except in uncommon conditions when piles were dominated by large wood and occupied a high percentage of the ground surface.

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