Prescribed fire, soils, and stream water chemistry in a watershed in the Lake Tahoe Basin, California

Scott L. Stephens, Thomas Meixner, Mark Poth, Bruce McGurk, Dale Payne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Before Euro-American settlement fire was a common process in the forests of the Lake Tahoe Basin. The combination of drought, fire suppression, and past harvesting has produced ecosystems that are susceptible to high-severity wildfires. Consequently, a program of prescribed fire has been recommended but there is incomplete understanding of the ecological effects of fuels treatments, especially with regard to how treatments will affect the flow of nutrients to Lake Tahoe. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the most important nutrients affecting algal growth, and thus lake clarity. Existing data demonstrate a long-term shift from a co-limitation by both nitrogen and phosphorus to phosphorus limitation. Two high-consumption, moderate-intensity prescribed fires were conducted to determine their effects on soil and stream water chemistry. Stream water calcium concentrations increased in burned watersheds whereas soluble reactive phosphorus concentrations were not significantly different. Prescribed fires released calcium and raised soil pH and this may have resulted in the incorporation of phosphorus into insoluble forms. Stream monitoring data indicates water quality effects last for ∼3 months. Prescribed fires did not significantly increase the amount of soluble reactive phosphorus in stream waters. However, additional research is needed to determine if prescribed fire increases erosion or movement of particulate P, particularly in areas with steep slopes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-35
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Wildland Fire
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2004


  • Mixed conifer forests
  • Nutrients
  • Phosphorus
  • Sierra Nevada

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Ecology


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