Wildfire smoke affects environment, wildlife, and water

Wildfire smoke affects environment, wildlife, and water

Smoke did not deter people from visiting Fallen Leaf Lake in the Tahoe basin in summer 2020. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Smoke from wildfires may be as dangerous to the environment as it is to humans.

Every summer and fall when smoke inundates a town health officials issue warnings, often telling people to stay indoors. Wildlife doesn’t have that option. Bodies of water cannot be covered, nor can acres of flora or soil. The impacts of smoke on the environment, while not well known, continue to be calculated.

In November the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center received a nearly $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of wildfire smoke on lakes in the West. This will be a group project with the University of Nevada and the National Park Service out of Crater Lake. Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake in Oregon, Clear Lake in Lake County, and about 20 smaller lakes in the Sierra will be studied.

“We have instruments in all of them measuring oxygen every day,” Geoff Schladow, executive director of TERC, said. “We can learn what affect smoke is having on the respiration and growth of algae.”

Algae needs nitrogen, phosphorus and light. Smoke allows less light in, which decreases the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in water bodies. The consequences could be greater on smaller lakes, according to Schladow.

“If suddenly you have conditions that favor production of algae, then winter comes, ice forms on top of the lake and all the algae falls to the bottom the of lake, say 10 times as much because of smoke, and it starts to decompose in winter, they then consume oxygen,” Schladow said. “So oxygen may disappear in the lake. That could kill the fish living there, invertebrates and zooplankton. It could affect the ecosystem.”

The grant will allow scientists to make sense of all the data that has been collected. Findings could take 12 to 18 months.

Schladow said the hypotheses to be looked at include:

  • In highly transparent lakes such a Lake Tahoe reduced light from smoke will increase algal photosynthesis but in lakes with lower water clarity will reduce photosynthesis.
  • Fertilization effects from ash deposition will be larger in oligotrophic (clear) lakes than eutrophic (murky) lakes and with little variation across lake sizes.
  • In lakes where there is increased photosynthesis the excess organic matter will increase the frequency and duration of hypoxia and anoxia.

During the June 2007 Angora Fire on the South Shore scientists studied the effects of smoke and ash on Lake Tahoe in real time. Nutrient levels increased at the end of the lake where the fire burned, with conditions returning to normal within a week or two. Angora Creek had ongoing monitoring, with elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus found for several years. Because it is a small tributary to Lake Tahoe, the impacts on the larger body of water were negligible.

Studies were also conducted by TERC regarding the smoke from the 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite. Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, and Cascade Lake were studied, along with Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor—both located close to the epicenter of the fire. The 2014 King Fire that burned in the Eldorado National Forest west of Lake Tahoe was also studied.

Schladow said there was a shift in where things were in lakes because they physically responded to there being less ultraviolet light. He said it took a couple months for everything to return to pre-fire conditions.

The U.S. Forest Service has also been looking into the impacts of wildfire smoke on the environment.

“Wildfire smoke and ash can act as a fertilizer when it deposits on land and in water. Those nutrients can further degrade the clarity of Lake Tahoe,” according to Jonathan Long, U.S. Forest Service research ecologist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station. “Smoke can influence germination of various plants, including stimulating germination in many shrubs. I think the impacts of smoke/ash deposition into the lake are likely to be the biggest effect. I have been engaged in some modeling work with John Mejia at (Desert Research Institute) that relates to this issue, although I don’t know that anyone has quantified the effects from the past few months of smoke events yet. Effects on forests are also uncertain, since smoke effects germination, temperatures, nutrients, and some pests.”

A study published by the Ecological Society of America in 2018 looked into how smoke can transport microorganisms. Long said, “The authors speculated that smoke could influence spread of the pathogen that causes white pine blister rust, which already impacts the three species of white pines in the basin.”

Long added, “Smoke from burned areas draws in various kinds of insects, including some wood boring beetles. Those effects will be greatest in the burned areas themselves.”

The Nevada Department of Wildlife, while more concerned about the actual fire and its impact on animals, still has an eye on the negatives of smoke—as there are no perceived positives. Dense smoke changes the air temperature and decreases visibility.

“Some birds like swallows need to eat insects every day to maintain their body weight. With different temperatures there are not as many insects,” said Nate LaHue, NDOW veterinarian.

Birds have flown into buildings or other obstacles because their eyesight is impaired from smoke or because they became disoriented. Often this results in their death.

One advantage animals have over humans is that over centuries they have adapted to living with fire, which includes smoke. Many hunker down during smoky conditions. What isn’t known is how they are adapting as fire seasons, at least in the Western United States, become more intense and burn for longer periods of time.

When LaHue conducts one of his approximately 300 necropsies each year (this is an autopsy on an animal) smoke inhalation is not something he usually looks for. The diversity division at NDOW monitors wildlife populations. It’s possible if numbers change after a significant wildfire smoke event in the state, that it could trigger a closer look at smoke’s impact on animals.

NDOW is a small department, so it relies on studies conducted by other entities. Jasmine Kleiber, a wildlife specialist in NDOW’s habitat division, pointed to a research from the United Kingdom and a study from the University of Washington in Seattle stating that smoke lowers biodiversity levels. Sound measurements were used, noting a decrease in animal calls during smoke events.

“There is speculation also of some impacts to lung function,” Kleiber said. “There may be damage to tissue similar to humans. Any damage to tissues could leave animals prone to other viruses.”

Different species have different lung functions and capacities, so the amount of particulate matter that gets into the respiratory system will impact each animal differently. Just like people, sick, young and very old animals are more likely to succumb to smoke, Kleiber said.

“The reality is we don’t know a tremendous amount about the effects of smoke on wildlife except it’s similar to people,” Kleiber said. “It is a big concern, though. A tremendous amount of staff time and resources are spent on wildfire activities because they have such a profound effect on our wildlife throughout the state.”

While humans cannot prevent wildfire smoke or redirect it, Kleiber believes it is still important to know what smoke is doing to the environment.

“We should worry about it. It is worth better understanding how wildfires and the components of wildfires like smoke effect our wildlife, water quality, and soil. Natural resources are already under a tremendous amount of strain for numerous reasons,” Kleiber said.

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Tahoe In Depth.

Flat trail in Sugar Pine Point an easy excursion through the forest

Flat trail in Sugar Pine Point an easy excursion through the forest

Several bridges cross General Creek, with trails on both sides. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Scenic, flat, meandering and nearly empty.

The unpopulated part is what Sugar Pine Point Campground is like in the fall once the overnight temperatures have dropped, students are back in school, and the tourists have gone. The beauty is always there.

While I would not recommend this for people in search of autumn colors, there are some to see. The few groves of aspens were an added bonus.

The number of brown ferns was indicative how much water is usually in the area.

Sue and I headed out to find Lily Pond, but instead made a loop of sorts through the park, which had us crossing General Creek a couple times. Water in late October was not flowing fast or deep. It would have been easy enough to cross it without the bridge, at least that time of year.

According to the Sierra State Parks Foundation, “In 1860, the first permanent settler of record on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore built a cabin at the mouth of General Creek. This was the trapper and fisherman William “General” Phipps, and his cabin can still be seen today just north of the Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park pier.”

Splashes of color decorate the trail in Sugar Pine Point State Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

What makes this excursion desirable is the myriad paths one can take, the history from the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the fact nearly anyone could do this trek. Several signs talk about how the cross country events for the Squaw Valley Winter Games were staged in this West Shore location. These trails are still great in the winter for skiing and snowshoeing.

It’s so flat the elevation gain is negligible; with it being a near constant 6,400 feet. Much of the trail is like an old dirt road, so wide enough for two to walk side-by-side.

In all, we walked 5.78 miles that day. We logged 0.62 miles each way on a paved path from the day use parking area to the start of the dirt trail. When you pay to park ask the ranger for a map. This will help you decide which path to take.



Castle Rock a gem of a short hike on South Shore

Castle Rock a gem of a short hike on South Shore

Castle Rock is a relatively easy hike on the South Shore. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One of the great things about hiking in the Lake Tahoe area is that even short excursions can have big views and make you feel like you were out in the wilderness without clocking double-digit mileage.

Such is the case with the climb to Castle Rock on the South Shore. With the starting point near the top of Kingsbury Grade, much of the elevation is gained by driving. The rocks resemble a crown from a distance, a great distance for my imagination. Up close it’s an impressive mass of granite.

Rosemary and I did a loop in mid-October that was three miles, but would have been shorter by about a half mile if we had done an out-and-back. Signage has improved through the years, which makes getting to the rock formation easier.

Views of Lake Tahoe along the trail to Castle Rock in Stateline. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

When we were there it was not possible to climb to the top of Castle Rock because falcons were nesting. Signs warned people not to go to the top. “If you see a raptor diving or hear loud bird calls, you may be too close to the nest,” the warning read. The sign was to be removed when the nesting period was over; no specific date was given.

The falcon warning was at the point people decide if they are going toward the vista trail or climbing routes. It’s possible to get views of the lake without climbing to the top of the rock formation. The lake and some of the runs at Heavenly Mountain Resort come are visible before this sign.

With the parking lot being the Kingsbury North Trailhead of the Tahoe Rim Trail, there are several other hiking options in this area.

While dogs are allowed, I would not bring a four-legged one to Castle Rock because even without climbing to the top you might want to scramble around a bit on the lower area. This isn’t going to a good idea for every pooch.



Trail network in Van Sickle Park continues to grow

Trail network in Van Sickle Park continues to grow

Views of Lake Tahoe along the new K to K Trail in Van Sickle Bi-State Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Although Van Sickle Bi-State Park opened in 2011, trails are still being built. This is a good thing for hikers and mountain bikers, especially when it helps relieve congestion.

In the 2020 trail building season, the section of the K to K Trail going to Kingsbury Grade was finished. When done, the other side will go to Keller Drive near Heavenly Mountain Resort’s California Lodge. A completion date has not been set. It will require going through private property and U.S. Forest Service land.

With easy access to this outdoor playground from the Stateline, Nevada, casinos, it has become a popular place to recreate for tourists and locals. Views of Lake Tahoe are easily had without much effort, making it an ideal place to go for those who don’t want to work up a sweat.

However, it is possible to get the adrenaline pumping depending on the trail one chooses. Information about the park and maps are often available at the site.

We opted to head left off the main trail onto the Cal-Neva Loop to get to the new K and K Trail. This was mostly to avoid the weekend traffic that was headed up on the route to the larger waterfall.

A small waterfall still flows in the fall. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

What a lovely section of trail. With it being so new we only counted a handful of people. While the waterfall on this route is not as tall as the main one, it was a fun discovery. And for so much water to be flowing in October was a bit surprising.

We ended up doing 3.69 miles that day, so had AJ been with us there would have been enough water for her. Plus, the temperature was definitely on the cooler side in October.

Much of the trail is single track, hard pack dirt. At times the forest is dense, other times it opens up to wonderful views of Lake Tahoe.

The route now ends at Easy Street. This intersects with Palisades Drive, which dead ends at Kingsbury Grade. We turned around at the first road, stayed on the K to K until it met up with the main trail in the park, and then went back to the starting point.

Van Sickle is the only bi-state part in the country. According to the park’s website, “As a memorial to his late grandfather Henry Van Sickle, Jack Van Sickle donated 542 acres of his land to the State of Nevada in 1988 to create a new Nevada State Park. Subsequently, the state of California purchased the adjacent land, the Van Sickle family’s former Crescent V Ranch, to connect the park to the community of South Lake Tahoe.”

Today the park is managed by the Nevada Division of State Parks in partnership with the California Tahoe Conservancy. The Tahoe Rim Trail Association and Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association are integral partners in continued trail expansion in the park.

The other great thing about Van Sickle is that it is a fun place to snowshoe.

It could be a few more years before the entire K to K route is completed. (Image: Kathryn Reed)



Scientists working to determine if Tahoe has a microplastic problem

Scientists working to determine if Tahoe has a microplastic problem

The first study about microplastics in Lake Tahoe was done in 2018 at four beaches. (Grapic: TERC)

Scientists are beginning to study how serious of a problem microplastics are in Lake Tahoe.

Called the Lake Tahoe Plastics Sink Study, the yearlong study started with the first samples being taken in August. Katie Senft is leading the UC Davis research team. Senft is a field researcher with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection is funding the project.

Senft and Jenessa Gjeltema, a board certified specialist in zoological medicine and assistant professor of zoological medicine, gave a virtual talk this month about microplastics and Tahoe.

Microplastics can be any type of plastic that is a fragment less than 5mm in length.

Not much data exists about microplastics in fresh water or what they are doing to the overall ecosystem. TERC first started looking at the issue at Lake Tahoe in 2018. Samples were taken around the lake—at Hidden Beach, Commons Beach, Lester Beach and Baldwin Beach. Microplastics were found at all four. Baldwin, on the South Shore, had significantly more than at the other locations.

Researchers did a test sample of microplastics in Lake Tahoe in February 2020. (Graphic: TERC)

According to TERC, “Plastics enter the natural environment from a variety of sources including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. They easily break down into smaller and smaller fragments by UV light and physical abrasion from wind and waves, but never disappear. Research has shown microplastics are entering the food chain, leaching chemicals, and showing up in soils and drinking water.”

While many might first think of plastic bags and water bottles as trash that could break down, plastics are in so many products. Plastics are turned into synthetic clothes like fleece, stuffed animals, cosmetics, personal hygiene items, disposable masks, IV lines and other health care products, industrial processes and so much more.

“Most of us don’t love plastic, but most of us love what plastic can easily provide,” Gjeltema said. “What happens in the next lifecycle is some can be recycled, but large numbers cannot be recycled and end up disposed in various ways. It could be packaged in more plastic and disposed in a landfill. It also can be lost into the environment.”

With wastewater being transported out of the Lake Tahoe Basin, that keeps microplastics from entering Lake Tahoe in that manner.

The study going on now will use a variety of methods to test for microplastics. Different plastics have different densities, so taking water samples at various levels is key. A Van Dorn sampler will collect water at 0, 15, 30, 50, 250, and 450 meters. A manta net will be used to collect samples at the surface and 20 meters.

A trial test was done in February that proved microplastics are an issue, but not as bad when compared to other waterbodies, according to Senft. Five types were found (film, fragment, fiber, foam, and sphere), with polymer the most common. This did not surprise researchers because polyethylene it is the most widely used plastic in the world.

Animals will also be studied—fish, bears and eagles. “We want to know if microplastics in the lake are moving into the terrestrial food web,” Senft said.

Results from the current study, which will end in July 2021, are expected late next year. The researchers say reducing plastic consumption is the first step individuals can take.

“If you don’t consume the plastics in the first place, they can’t get into the environment,” Senft said. “Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled worldwide. Small actions by many of us can add up to big change.”

Tennis balls being repurposed through recycling program

Tennis balls being repurposed through recycling program

Players at Zephyr Cove Tennis Club have been recycling balls for four years. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One and done. That’s the attitude for a lot of tennis players when it comes to a can of tennis balls. So many people won’t use a can for more than one session.

Then what? Usually it’s the garbage can for those three balls and the can.

Not so fast says Derrick Senior, founder of RecycleBalls. The Vermont-based nonprofit has been recycling tennis balls since 2014. Once the felt is separated from the rubber the product can actually return to the sport by becoming part of the court surface. They were used for the Laykold surface for the U.S. Open in New York.

They have also been used in equestrian arenas. RecycleBalls is working with Queen City Dry Goods to turn them into a shoe. Other research is under way to determine how else to use these discarded balls, with playgrounds a future possibility.

Zephyr Cove Tennis Club in Nevada has been working with RecycleBalls since 2017. Players can dump their spent balls into a box, which is then shipped to the company. In summer 2020 the club received the Green Ball Award from the company for having recycled 3,000 balls. The club believes the number is closer to 4,000 now.

Wilson, one of several manufactures of tennis balls, has partnered with RecycleBalls. That funding has allowed the company to not charge the clubs and others to mail the tennis balls to the East Coast.

It’s estimated that in the U.S. alone 125 million tennis balls are discarded each year. Since 2017, RecycleBalls has collected 4.2 million balls, has 1,900 partners participating in just about every state, with 15,000 bins scattered about the country.

Mexico-Texas share same baseball team

Mexico-Texas share same baseball team

Sports have often been a unifying force; having the ability to erase socio-economic barriers, transcend race, and even overcome politics. Such is the case of the Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos.

The world’s only binational professional baseball team has home stadiums in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. Locally, the team is known as the Tecos. Tecolote is the Spanish word for owl. The team motto is “Dos Naciones, Un Equipo,” or “Two Nations, One Team.”

Showtime on Oct. 16 premiered “Bad Hombres,” a movie about this AAA Mexican League team. The film focuses on the 2019 season.

Half of the home games are played on one side of the border, the other half on the other side.

Even though the team’s history dates to 1932 as a Mexican-only affiliate, the current incarnation has been playing on both sides of the border since 2017. The binational team played at the two stadiums for about 20 years starting in 1984.

While others may know this part of the world because of the drug cartels, there is more to these border towns. The Rio Grande separates the Laredos, but the two towns are linked by heritage and culture.

The New York Times said, “More than $208 billion in trade passed through Laredo (in 2017), making it one of the busiest land ports in the United States, according to the United States Department of Transportation. On average, 39,000 people a day cross the border here by foot, car and bus. About 95 percent of Laredo’s population of 260,000 is Hispanic.”

Mother Nature kisses Alpine County with abundance of beauty

Mother Nature kisses Alpine County with abundance of beauty

Aspens in full color in mid-October in Alpine County. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Hiking in the Sierra in the fall stimulates the senses more so than any other season. Visually, the scenery is more stunning. A slight chill tingles the skin. The decaying foliage casts a distinct aroma.

Often a lake is the destination for a Tahoe area hike. This time it was the starting point. It would have been easy to stay there and call it a day because the aspens and other foliage along the road were going off in mid-October like painters had been there competing to see who could create the most vibrant mosaic. For those wanting a memorable leaf peeping experience without exercise just drive the 5.6 miles of Burnside Road from Highway 88 to Burnside Lake.

Granite is a dominant feature along the trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Even though we enjoyed traveling along the dirt road, the hike was even more glorious. While we clocked 6.85 miles round trip, some outrageously terrific views are to be had just more than a mile into the forest. Stopping where the terrain opens into a valley below with mountains framing it will save you from needing poles, and going down, up, down and up again in elevation. This first part of the trail is relatively flat, with an expansive meadow.

When the descent began Sue and I each pulled out our poles. It’s less than a mile down, but it’s steep and about 1,000 feet. Lots of stops were necessary going down and up—all because of the need to take pictures. I won’t admit to needing to catch my breath on the climb up or that I felt it in my calves the next day.

A solo aspen in the middle of changing colors. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The marker at the bottom says it’s another three miles to Charity Valley and four miles to Blue Lakes Road. What it doesn’t say is that going straight would take us to Grover Hot Springs State Park in Markleeville. At several points the meadow at the state park is visible in the distance. We headed to Charity Valley.

Aspens are the primary deciduous tree in this part of the Toiyabe National Forest in Alpine County. While yellow is the primary color, the shades vary, with other leaves orange and red. In some locations it was like a carpet of leaves decorated the forest floor. Against the gray granite of the surrounding cliffs the aspens were even more vibrant.

Vast views are some of the rewards along this scenic trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

In October there was not much water until we headed toward Charity Valley. However, there were plenty of signs that this would be a wet trail in spring and early summer. Ferns are a good indicator water is not a scarcity. Other low-growing foliage included a plant with green leaves that resembled a maple leaf. Trees were growing out of the granite where it didn’t look like there was any dirt.

Mother Nature’s glory in Alpine County. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The trail is varied—soft dirt, hard pack dirt, decomposed granite, baseball size rocks, granite (follow the cairns), and a log crossing a dry stream.

Getting a late start meant we didn’t reach our original destination—Charity Valley. That would have been another three miles in total; there wasn’t enough daylight to carry on. We turned around at another incredible aspen grove that punctuated the reason we were out on that day—to witness the changing seasons.

An aspen grove on the way to Charity Valley from Burnside Lake. (Image: Kathryn Reed)



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