What we can learn from 36 years of prescribed burns at this Tahoe state park

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I’m standing in a stretch of woods. The trunks of towering trees are charred black and some of the lowest hanging pine needles are singed a burnt orange. Light streams through an open canopy. A sapling of cedar hardly bigger than the palm of my hand has just started to poke its head above a thin layer of pine needles.

This stretch of forest has obviously seen fire recently, but instead of destruction, I see growth and regeneration. The forest just feels healthier, spacious.

“What I see here is a really successful prescribed burn,” says Courtney Rowe, a senior environmental scientist with the California State Parks Sierra District. We are walking through the Edwin L. Z’berg Natural Reserve at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Tahoe’s West Shore with forester Rich Adams and burn boss David Murray. Adams directs the prescribed burn program here, while Murray manages the fire crew.

“I look at this and I get excited because I see us moving back to a system where fire is integrated,” Rowe says. She’s exuberant and speaks quickly, showering me with her knowledge about forest health and fire.

Since 1984, Sugar Pine Point State Park has consistently lit prescribed burns to restore the health of its forest. The park is one of the few places in Tahoe where you can see a landscape that’s seen fire twice or even three times.

As California reckons with a massive backlog of prescribed burns statewide (ProPublica reported recently that the state needs to burn 20 million acres), Sugar Pine Point State Park is an example of what a forest looks like — and how it serves as a robust and functioning ecosystem — when fire is reintroduced.

The sign of Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park on Sept. 24, 2020.

The sign of Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park on Sept. 24, 2020.