The Caldor Fire and Fuel Treatments: SF Chronicle, LA Times and Sac Bee Stories

SF Chronicle story..very cool graphics .. also “catching people doing something right”.

Meyers and Christmas Valley area
Up and over the mountains past Echo Summit and back down the ridge, the small communities of Meyers and Christmas Valley near South Lake Tahoe were well prepared for a wildfire — so well prepared that the Caldor Fire skipped over much of it.

A Lake Tahoe Basin fire commission of more than 20 local, state and federal agencies that came together after the 2007 Angora Fire spent years fireproofing the area, which included several fuel treatment projects, which included prescribed burns. The commission produced a meticulous response map showing how firefighters could use those areas to their advantage, Anthony of Cal Fire said.

Large-scale treatment projects like the Caples restoration projects are very effective, Stewart of UC Berkeley said, but difficult to make happen because of the complicated processes and costs. They also often face opposition from area residents and environmentalists over the use of heavy machinery, air quality or change to the landscape, he added.

“We need to do (treatments) on a bigger scale,” he said. “Just look at the scale of these fires. Even with all the resources they threw out, they couldn’t slow these fires down.”

There needs to be a more practical approach to fuel treatments in California, Stewart added. He says agencies need to examine what’s working versus not through data and be willing involve people and ideas that can help projects scale up.

LA Times story:


Susie Kocher, forestry and natural resources advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension, agreed.

“If you look at any of the fire maps, there’s a big gap between Kirkwood and Tahoe,” said Kocher, who was forced to evacuate her Meyers, Calif., home Monday. “That’s Caples.”

She said that due in part to its allure, the Tahoe area has been more successful than many parts of the Sierra in attracting resources for such projects.

The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, a multiagency coalition formed after the damaging Angora fire in 2007, said it has performed 65,000 acres of fuel reduction work in the Tahoe Basin over the past 13 years. The group also helps neighborhoods prepare for fire.

In a recent community briefing, Rocky Oplinger, an incident commander, described how such work can assist firefighters. When the fire spotted above Meyers, it reached a fuels treatment that helped reduce flame lengths from 150 to 15 feet, enabling firefighters to mount a direct attack and protect homes, he said.

“It takes both fuels reduction and active suppression in an environment like this to help the community and the forest survive,” Kocher said.

And an interview in the Sacramento Bee with Scott Stephens, fire researcher..during the fire.

How much consensus is there among fire scientists that these treatments do help?

I’d say at least 99%. I’ll be honest with you, it’s that strong; it’s that strong. There’s at least 99% certainty that treated areas do moderate fire behavior. You will always have the ignition potential, but the fires will be much easier to basically manage.

NEPA nerds Lake Tahoe is the only FS unit with its own CE as far as I know.

Lake Tahoe Basin Hazardous Fuel Reduction Projects. The 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Public Law (Pub. L.) 111-8) established a CE for hazardous fuels reduction projects within the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Within the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, projects carried out under this authority are limited to the following size limitations:

a proposal to authorize a hazardous fuel reduction project, not to exceed 5,000 acres, including no more than 1,500 acres of mechanical thinning. (Sec. 423 (a))

This CE can be used if the project:
is consistent with the Lake Tahoe Basin Multi-Jurisdictional Fuel Reduction and Wildfire Prevention Strategy published in December 2007 and any subsequent revision to the strategy;

is not conducted in any wilderness areas; and

does not involve any new permanent roads. (Sec. 423 (a))

A proposal using this CE shall be subject to:

the extraordinary circumstances procedures…; and

an opportunity for public input. (Sec. 423 (b))

Document this category in a decision memo (FSH 1909.15, 33.2 – 33.3). The decision memo should include a description of the efforts taking by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit provide an opportunity for public input.

Cite this authority as Pub. L. 111-8, Sec. 423

Note that this is up to 5,000 acres. I just think it’s interesting and likely related to politics. It’s more important to protect some communities than others?

28 thoughts on “The Caldor Fire and Fuel Treatments: SF Chronicle, LA Times and Sac Bee Stories”

    • Well, they ARE uniform across the Sierra Nevada. Green thinning projects are rarely litigated, but Congress seems to not want to pay for more “proper forest management”. (You see those three words often, but it is rarely defined. Of course, “proper” must fit under NEPA)

    • California’s Cap Radio has an excellent article, posted Oct. 5, “Wildfire torched the Sierra all summer, evading containment. Here’s how Tahoe protected itself.” Includes a map of all treatment areas in the Tahoe basin.


      The firefighters’ main objective: keep the blaze out of South Lake Tahoe, a dense mountain city of more than 21,000 people, and the surrounding communities, home of Kocher and thousands more.

      As a first line of defense, crews with bulldozers scraped earth bare against homes in Meyers and Christmas Valley, where they expected to make a desperate stand, said Phil Heitzke, a fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.

      When the wildfire charged towards the fire line, “we were getting 100 or 150 foot flame lengths,” Heitzke said.

      But suddenly, the flames lowered to the forest floor. Firefighters crossed the dozer lines, safely able to work next to the flames, steering the wildfire away from the homes.

      “The fire behavior dropped down as soon as it hit this unit,” Heitzke said.

      If crews hadn’t thinned small trees and brush here a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible.

      “The canopy is open, and that’s the key thing with these fires, having that open canopy so the [wildfire] can’t sustain a crown run” where the fire burns from treetop to treetop, Heitzke said.

      “For the folks who have been working on these projects the last two decades my hat’s off to them.”

  1. I’m not sure if I have calculated the numbers correctly, but the excellent Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP) website indicates that since 1997, 55,690 acres of hazardous fuels have been treated to reduce wildfire risk in the Lake Tahoe Region at a cost of approximately $180 million, which amounts to about $3 million/per acre. The total budget for all EIP projects during the 23 year period of time was ~$2.5 billion. A good portion of the funds ($1.176 billion) came from the states (CA $990 million, NV, $186 million). That’s a lot of money, for sure. I wonder how many communities can afford such costs?

  2. I think LeClair meant $3000/acre not $3 mill… but from looking at the (very good) map depictions of the fire’s spread and treatment areas a huge issue is not only the enormous cost, but even more importantly the SCALE of the problem. How do agencies get millions of acres treated in real time? And it was unclear to me whether the weather abated as the fire approached S Lake Tahoe, aiding in ultimate control along with treatment areas. Not surprisingly, many treatment areas were overwhelmed in the face of temp and wind.

    • From what I know, the weather did help slow the fire, but that without the fuels work in the basin and the building of dozer lines ahead of the fire, plus aggressive spot fire suppression, a lot more houses might have been lost.

    • Imagine how intense it would have burned if we had not salvage-logged 300 million board feet of dead and dying timber from 1989 to 1992. That was only on the Placerville RD. After that, every logging project had diameter limits and a ban on clearcuts. It’s too bad that the checkerboard land ownership pattern factored into everything. Once the fire reached Strawberry, the cause was lost, with the fire burning into inaccessible forests and steep(er) terrain.

  3. Where are the comprehensive studies of hundreds of fires in thinned and unthinned forests?

    Do you really think your pro-logging echo chamber is going to become more substantive when you’re constantly cherry picking fire mosaics for the results you want rather than a thorough vetting of all fire intensities as relates to all forest thinning types, or at least a sizable amount of them? Where are the references that aren’t just anecdotal but based on comprehensive data?

    I’ve seen plenty of comprehensive studies that Hansen and Wuerthner and others have gathered up, especially in California and they point to thinning offering negligible benefits and in many cases they cause more damage because wind speed and regrowth of fine flashy fuels/weeds is greater in a thinned forest, which means a faster moving, hotter and more damaging fire happens in thinned forests.

    And remember, wind speed increases exponentially in terms of energy input into a fire. A 20mph wind is not just four times the energy compared to a 5mph wind, it’s 16 times the energy!

    And because ya’ll think anecdotes are so great let’s look at a popular YouTube channel by a firefighter visiting the Dixie fire after a 1/2 inch of rain where he goes to a thinned forest that was totally destroyed by the fire because the knuckleheads doing the thinning didn’t account for surface wind patterns in a spot on the land where wind speeds were always higher than in neighboring areas.

    You can see this forest at 6 mins in here: and see all the needle freeze from high heat and wind. Had they not used a one sized fits all approach to maximize profitability of the thinning operation and did a far lower intensity thinning or set this windy area aside as a protected area to mitigate for increased wind speed this forests wouldn’t of been wiped out entirely.

    There’s something about the excess carbon in the atmosphere that Smokey Wire crowd is intentionally blind to. Whether it be complaining about how there’s unfair limits on fossil fuel extraction in the midwest or complaining about fuels build up on landscapes that have been over-harvested and over-grazed for more than a century, it’s never about too much carbon in the air causing record drought, record high temps, a slowing jet stream that leads to more extreme surface temperature gradient, that in turn generate their own severe winds.

    (Note: The Labor day fires of 2020 for example was from a record setting early fall cold front in Colorado that led to record winds blowing out to the coast and mega fires burning 100K acres in a single day in some locations: )

    What it’s always about at SmokeyWire is too much carbon underground and on the surface that we need to burn into the sky, which makes the problem worse, not better. It literally is the definition of insanity.

  4. “they point to thinning offering negligible benefits and in many cases they cause more damage because wind speed and regrowth of fine flashy fuels/weeds is greater in a thinned forest, which means a faster moving, hotter and more damaging fire happens in thinned forests.”

    Of course, this is not true. Wind speed and flashy fuels means little in a forest which survives such quick and cool fires. It is perfectly OK if a fire is pushed through a forest with less fuels to burned. It will not burn hot if there’s no ground or ladder fuels.

    We’ve seen these fires rage through the accumulated fuels of 80 years of fire suppression. We’ve seen the results of “letting nature take its course”. Shouldn’t we help nature dispose of some of those fuels, instead of letting it burn, uncontrolled, all at once? Are we about to lose the largest tree in the world, with the mentality that the sequoias will survive, some way, somehow?

    Much of my career was in salvaging timber, especially from wildfires. I have no reason to produce bias or spin. All I have to offer is my experience and analysis.

    • Again, zero references, just dismissiveness and personal anecdotes your mom might be proud of but that’s not sciene, nor is it well referenced facts.

      Why can’t you share some references to comprehensive studies not just cherry picking the results you want within an individual fire mosaic?

      If you want to prove your lack or bias or spin than show the research that’s been done to prove you point otherwise it’s just a bunch of hot air.

      “My colleagues and I published the largest scientific study yet on this topic, analyzing three decades of data representing more than 1,500 fires that burned 23 million acres. We found that while weather and climate were the primary factors in fire intensity and spread, forest management was a significant secondary factor. As we noted in a letter to Congress, signed by 200 other scientists, “Reduced forest protections and increased logging tend to make wildland fires burn more intensely …” Dense, mature forests tend to burn less intensely than those that have been logged because they have higher canopy cover and more shade, which creates a cooler, more moist microclimate. The higher density of trees of all sizes can act as a windbreak, buffering gust-driven flames. Thinning and other activities that remove trees, especially mature trees, reverse those effects, creating hotter, drier, and windier conditions.”

      “Cal Fire will say that their fuel treatment projects will allow them to control 95% of the fires they confront. This is equivalent to only preparing for the 95th percentile of earthquakes, or what we would feel as a result of a magnitude 2.5. Until Cal Fire starts addressing the fires that cause nearly all the destruction, the wind-driven fires that ignore fuel treatments and defensible space, communities will continue to be lost. The only way to address those wind-driven fires is to direct Cal Fire to think outside the box and start accepting the fact that we are facing a home ignition problem, not a fire suppression problem.

      “…if we assume for the sake of argument that thinning will reduce potential fire intensity, Rhodes and Baker (2008) found that, due to post-thinning vegetation regrowth, as well as the extremely low rate of occurrence of high-intensity fire currently, an area would have to be mechanically thinned every 20 years for about 720 years to have a mere 50% chance of encountering high-intensity fire and reducing its intensity. Not only would the adverse impacts of such repeated thinning on soils, watersheds, and wildlife be profound, but
      such constant thinning would permanently suppress carbon storage levels.”

      “For example, in a study in Yellowstone where 235 fires were permitted to burn without suppression between 1972 and 1987, 222 burned less than 5 acres, while a few grew larger. And all 235 blazes went out with any suppression efforts. Did Yellowstone suddenly gain far more fuel in 1988 than in 1987? What accounted for the massive 1988 fires that swept through more than 1.5 million acres of Yellowstone and surrounding national forests? The only significant difference was that in 1988 Yellowstone experienced the most severe drought in its entire recorded history. The drought combined with low humidity and with winds of 50 mph drove the fire through the forests. This is a key point. Under extreme fire weather conditions, fuel reductions (prescribed burning and thinning) are typically ineffective in slowing or stopping the spread of blazes.”

      • Your dubious ‘references’ say nothing, specifically, about Forest Service thinning projects. Hanson and his foolish followers are unreliable sources of information, using agenda-based science. Again, ad nauseum, you folks point at private logging practices, and claim that the Forest Service shouldn’t be using them. The reality, on the actual ground, is much different.

        Preserving the controversy is now Mission #1 for preservationists. I’m not seeing that happening, today, or tomorrow.

        • Hi Deanne, For references on fuel treatment effectiveness please see: “Adapting western North American forests to climate change and wildfires: ten common questions” Prichard et al 2021 which is open source and can be viewed here: In the review paper, they list dozens and dozens of previous studies that have shown the effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments in restoring natural disturbance patterns and reducing localized wildfire hazard.

          Additionally in the same special issue is “Evidence for widespread changes in the structure, composition, and fire regimes of western North American forests” by Hagmann et al 2021 also open source and found here –
          Specifically please see table 3 where the authors give 10 examples of papers by Hanson, Baker with flawed conclusions due to poor study design, poor statistical analysis, and lack of scientific curiosity.

  5. There is no doubt that fuel thinning modifies the complex balance of micrometeorological conditions and fuel availability, which in turn, influences fire behavior. Thinning increases surface temperatures, modifies wind speeds and direction, and affects ambient humidity and fuel moisture levels.

    Here is an excerpt from an August 2020 paper by Tirtha Banerjee of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine, CA discussing models of wind speed, canopy turbulence, fuel moisture, and fire behavior.


    “There are conflicting reports in the literature regarding the effectiveness of forest thinning. Some studies have found that thinning reduces fire severity, while some studies have found that thinning might lead to enhanced fire severity.

    “There is no doubt that wind speed increases post-thinning as the canopy is opened up after thinning. The opening up of the canopy reduces the fuel loading and fuel connectivity, thereby reducing fuel drag to wind, enhancing wind speed. At the same time, this increased space between trees increases the turbulence levels inside the canopy and augments the convective preheating of the fuel elements downstream of the fire front, thereby facilitating fire front propagation.

    At a low level of thinning, there is some minimal loss of the heat generated due to the burning of fuel. At this low level of thinning, the wind speeds also increase to some extent and possibly is enough to counteract this loss of heat generated due to burning and wind can maintain almost the same level of convective heating, which is a major mechanism for fire spread. If some canopy moisture is lost at this low level of thinning, the heat of combustion increases which compensates for the slight reduction of fuel. This, when combined with increasing wind speed leads to increased fireline intensity and fire severity compared to the untreated forest. This is potentially the reason, why some studies have reported increased fire behavior post-thinning operations.

    However, this effect cannot carry on at higher levels of thinning. At a higher degree of thinning, the loss of fuel is enough to generate a lower amount of heat of combustion and the increase of wind speed is not sufficient to compensate for this loss, so the convective heating starts to become lower than the untreated case. This change happens slower if the canopy fuel moisture reduces to some extent following thinning operations. In that case, the heat of combustion does increase by some amount and the increase of wind speed allows for a more significant fire severity, although less than the reference case. Perhaps this is the reason that most of the studies reported a lower fire intensity post-thinning.

    It is again important to note that it is hard to identify the exact parameters of this competition between fuel availability and wind effects and the exact threshold where fire severity increases first after some degree of thinning and then starts to decrease compared to the untreated case. Nevertheless, simulations are able to point out the theoretical limiting scenarios of this behavior and actual fire behavior is likely to follow somewhere between these limits.

    Another important factor apart from fire intensity (which is the energy released during fire propagation) is the rate of spread. The trends of the rate of spread do not follow the same trends of fire severity following thinning operations but are equally important from a management perspective. The rate of spread is dependent on the wind but is also dependent to some extent on the intensity of combustion. A low degree of thinning can increase the rate of spread to some extent. However, an increase in wind speed can only increase the rate of spread partially. Unless the intensity of burning is significant, the rate of spread does not increase prominently. Thus, reduction of canopy fuel moisture leads to a higher rate of spread. It is only at a very high degree of thinning, that the energy of combustion does not contribute much to the rate of spread and is mostly driven by wind speed. Thus, the rate of spread only increases significantly at much higher degrees of thinning and even then it is augmented due to loss of canopy fuel moisture and increased convective heating.


    We found out that a low degree of thinning can indeed increase fire intensity, especially if the canopy fuel moisture is low. A high degree of thinning was effective in reducing fire intensity. However, thinning also increased the rate of spread under some conditions. Interestingly, both intensity and rate of spread were dependent on the competing effects of increased wind speed, fuel loading, and canopy fuel moisture.


    We were able to find that the limits of fire behavior post-thinning and actual fire behavior are likely to be somewhere in the middle of the theoretical extremes explored in this work. The actual fire behavior post-thinning should depend on the site-specific conditions which would determine the outcome of the interplay among the aforementioned conditions. The work also highlights that policymakers should be careful about fine-scale canopy architectural attributes and micrometeorological aspects when planning fuel treatment operations.

    The impact of fuel treatment using mechanical thinning on fire behavior is a topic fraught with lack of consensus, although it is widely accepted as a major management tool. Thinning is either conducted alone or combined with prescribed fires. While thinning combined with prescribed fires is highly likely to reduce fire severity in coniferous forests, there is contrasting evidence in the literature on the effects of thinning alone.”

    Don’t get me started on the ecological harms of extensive “salvage” logging; that’s another hot-button topic for another day. Needless to say, it is often just a compounding of damages and a delaying of natural restoration potential.

    • These are the kinds of nuances that don’t play well in larger policy arguments like we tend to have here. I hope that project planners realize that they do need to be addressed as “relevant factors” for thinning prescriptions if they want to survive NEPA/APA scrutiny.

    • I would be very curious if the simulations were set up to better resemble actual silvicultural prescriptions if the results would hold the same. In the study, they assigned trees a number and randomly selected trees to reduce TPA by 25, 50, etc%. This is not how prescriptions are implemented. I am curious if this pretty basic design flaw is why the paper was published in FORESTS and not a more rigorous journal. MDPI journals have gone way downhill recently with a greater focus on revenue than scientific rigor. An article with a forestry focus is just as likely to have an architect or chemist review their paper then a subject matter expert.

    • Michael- the ten questions paper (that Patrick F cited above) was written by a group of leading experienced fire scientists, who use modelling plus looking at past fire patterns. It’s a synthesis paper, which means they synthesized the literature, including modelling studies. In fact we posted on the first five questions here already.

      I posted the relevant question here:

  6. I spent a lot of time over the years working on fuel projects in the area burned by the Caldor Fire. Almost every economically viable acre had been commercially thinned at least once over the past 15 years and many acres are on their second round of commercial thinning. It’s all the acres in-between (i.e., too steep or not enough commercial volume) that have not been treated. The entire 10,000 acre area around Grizzly Flats was NEPAed for Rx fire (even all the spotted owl habitat, which was some of the best left on the Eldorado) and all of the commercially viable acres had been thinned once or twice in 15 years. Due to a lack of personnel, they never got the burning done. This story plays out over and over again on this landscape. Anyone suggesting that the cause of the issue is a lack of commercial thinning hasn’t planned a project in this area. The ownership pattern doesn’t help either. SPI is not willing to have a single tree die from Rx fire.

    It’s also interesting to note that the Caples burn was supposed to take place in phases. A red flag warning was called the day after they lit the first 400 acre broadcast piece. In order to get air support for containment, CalFire required they call it a wildfire. A few hundred acres burned outside of the larger Caples perimeter, but it was considered a debacle by some. Turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Caples. Caples had no pre-treatment thinning beyond the control lines and the effects were consistent with restoration goals. Goes to show we don’t need commercial thinning to get the fire effects we need and want, as long as the weather is moderate.

    • “Almost every economically viable acre had been commercially thinned at least once over the past 15 years and many acres are on their second round of commercial thinning.”

      I would not say that. It appears that no thinning projects have occurred on this road system since the 1989 salvage efforts, which I was a big part of. We salvaged several million board feet of dead and dying timber off this road system, near Capps Crossing. It’s all tractor ground, but maybe there’s not enough basal area in there to justify a thinning project. IMHO, it looks ready to be thinned, to me (if it didn’t burn badly).,-120.3732404,1147m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

      I do agree that Placerville RD has been very aggressive in getting work done. We should wait until we can see how intense this fire actually was. However, we do know that fire intensities should have been significantly lessened, to due both thinning and salvage, over the last 30 years, with zero clearcuts and no old growth harvesting (other than on private lands).

  7. It seems that people often forget that thinning projects are not solely for modifying fire behavior. There are silvicultural benefits to thinning, as well. Thinning projects were never designed to “stop wildfires”.

    We will also have some new examples of “protected” forests in National Parks burning down. What will become of the dead sequoia forests? What will we learn from their sacrifice? I did predict that entire groves of giant sequoias would burn up. I guess we get to see the wonder of the “Whatever Happens” management style. The Castle Fire from last summer killed the foliage on even the big ones. Can the Save the Redwoods League actually save these trees? That was their original intent.


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