Burning impact: What happens after the fire
By Anette McGee Rasch for the Mail Tribune, October 14, 2018
Only 2 percent of the land affected by the 211,801-acre Klondike and Taylor Creek fires on the Wild Rivers and Gold Beach Ranger Districts burned at high severity; an additional 75 percent burned at “low” or “very low” severities — or remained “unburned,” according to a recent U.S. Forest Service assessment. About 20 percent burned at medium severity.
This was determined by Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team members — soil scientists, hydrologists and other Forest Service specialists — who combined ground observations with information from aerial reconnaissance flights and satellite-generated images to produce a soil burn severity map that will now be utilized to create an action plan.
The BAER team just wrapped up a two-week project to identify “imminent post-wildfire threats to human life, safety, property, and also, critical natural or cultural resources on Forest Service lands,” according to public information officer Andy Lyon.
“We get these assessments done quickly so we can implement actions right away in the first year, to prevent more damages to the lands when the first big winter storms happen,” Lyon said.
“We’re now in the process of determining what emergency actions to recommend,” said Kyle Wright, a Forest Service hydrologist and BAER team leader. “We are out to aid natural recovery for the landscape and then implement treatments to reduce post-fire emergencies, whether that’s rock falls, debris flows, landslides, plugged culverts, debris across roadways and hazard tree mitigation — mostly along roads or adjacent to campgrounds or trail heads.
Regarding the general condition of the burned lands, Wright said “compared to other fires we’re in a pretty good place,” and he credits “intact forestland and low burn severity” as key factors.
“You’d expect some short-term flooding and ash impact, but I expect within a season or two, there’ll be a lot of recovery to the watershed,” he said. “Fire impacted landscapes have vastly different recovery scenarios that are largely determined by human activity, both during the fire and afterwards.”
John Roth, natural resource specialist with Oregon Caves National Monument and Reserve, is pleased that BAER projects on the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires will not use grass seed.
“Some studies have shown that seed planting or dropping hay off the cliffs to stabilize slopes have only limited benefits, and compared to the cost of the operations, it’s also a waste of money,” Roth said. “Plus, there’s the possibilities of unintended consequences: With climate change bringing in more precipitation, invasive plants could get a real boost and that could be harmful to the volumes of rare plants found on our rare serpentine soils.”
Roth also said dozer lines can cause rock and soil mixing that produces different soils more conducive to supporting invasive plants and spreading diseases such as Port Orford Cedar root rot disease.
“In the first year or two soils are sensitive and prone to erosion, but that really is a short-term effect,” added Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D., executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.
Ingalsbee explained how wildfire in the wilderness generally moves fast through the steep canyons and that “there’s more smoke from the burnouts than from the wildfires. So when we fight fire with fire, we basically end up fighting smoke with smoke.
“The weather puts the fires in, and the weather puts the fires out — regardless of what we do,” Ingalsbee said. “They start with lightning and they end with rain. So in between those two events, we’re putting lots of firefighters’ lives at risk and spending a lot of taxpayer dollars and causing a lot of damage. But in the end, it’s the weather that ends it.
“Firefighting impacts are much more damaging than the wildfire effects are,” Ingalsbee said. “Fire effects can almost disappear after the event, but running a dozer line across those fragile soils will last a century or more. Then you get invasive weeds, off-road vehicles doing more damage and fragmentation of wild lands that ends up fragmenting wildlife.
Like hundreds of other scientists now speaking out, Ingalsbee said efforts should focus on community wildfire resiliency: preparing neighborhoods for the inevitability of wildfires in the region by thinning around homes and roads nearby.
“BAER projects are paid for from firefighting budgets,” Ingalsbee also said. “So it’s kind of a racket. The more damage you do fighting the fire, the more money you get to repair the damage.”
The Forest Service is engaged in three phases of recovery following wildfires on federal lands. First, fire suppression repair, which typically starts before fires are contained and includes repair to hand and dozer fire lines, roads and trails. Next is the BAER work, designed to mitigate for first-year storm damages. Finally, long-term recovery and restoration efforts, which can include salvage logging or thinning projects.
And it’s the long-term recovery plans that some forest scientists are concerned about.
“The burn severity report confirms that the fire had very beneficial effects on this fire-adapted ecosystem by reducing flammable fuels for years to come,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Ashland-based Geos Institute, which focuses on climate change and other environmental issues.
“I’m mostly worried now about how much post-fire salvage logging will be permitted that will set back forest renewal, cause extensive damage to soils and water quality, and increase future fire risks by planting small flammable trees in tight rows. That’s the biggest threat to forest renewal that we have seen and it needs to stop if we are going to have fire-safe forests.”
For more information and to see a copy of the soil burn severity map, visit the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest BAER web page and scroll down until you see the “Features” section.