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As forests burn, restoration plan is already in place

By Lauren GravitzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2000


It's raining in the Cleveland National Forest - big, fat drops that come with the summer monsoons. Lightning crackles in the air, and when it hits the earth the ground trembles underfoot.

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This is perfect fire weather.

But on this southern California hillside, the raindrops fall on already-blackened ground. Fire swept through here last October, its flames burning hot and intense - much like those occupying more than 1.5 million acres in the Western United States.

When fire like that rushes through, it has the power to turn verdant forests into desolate moonscapes. The ground becomes a mosaic of light and dark ash, studded with dead tree trunks. And, according to most US Forest Service officials, once the fire has been extinguished, one of the first questions people ask is: "When will it look like it used to?"

It is a difficult question to answer - 20 years? 60 years? Never? Depending on the extent and severity of the burn, rehabilitation and restoration of land after a wildfire can be a huge job, often costing more than a million dollars and requiring the efforts of hundreds of people. Some projects can last for decades.

The first attempts to rehabilitate land after a burn can occur while the flames are still high. Resource advisers work in tandem with firefighters, telling them which areas house important archeological sites, endangered species, or drainage for public water supplies.

Then, once the firefighters are sure that the flames are no longer moving forward, workers can begin to mitigate the damages caused by firefighting efforts. They cover over firebreaks - both bulldozer and man-made - with soil and dead brush. But this "suppression rehab" is only the beginning.

When it becomes clear that a fire is going to be large and may have long-lasting effects, the fire's incident commander calls in a Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) team. Typically composed of specialists like soil scientists, hydrologists, and ecologists from local federal and state agencies, the team starts working while the fire is still smoking. BAER teams evaluate every major fire that occurs in the US. Their task: to identify immediate dangers, from soil erosion to flood control to precariously-angled tree skeletons near recreation areas.

"The first job that we ever do on a fire is we start looking at the resources," says Terry Kaplan-Henry, a BAER team leader and forest hydrologist. "Our first day we got together, we just laundry-listed everything we knew about the area.... We had this botanical area and that habitat area and we had this and that and the other thing.... It's overwhelming."

Wearing hard hats, dark-green pants and bright-yellow shirts, BAER team members stand out against the burned landscape. They measure soil quality, assess drainages and streambeds and survey archaeological sites.

Of all their concerns, however, perhaps the most pressing is what must be done before the first rain. When rainstorms follow fire, it can make for disasters downstream. Without vegetation to soak up rainwater and hold the soil in place, the amount of water and dirt flowing into nearby drainages can increase more than tenfold. More silt in the runoff can plug culverts and waterways, making them flood and threaten communities downstream. Occasionally, nutrient-rich ash can pollute water supplies, causing huge algal blooms, making the water undrinkable.

BAER team members recommend many ways to lessen or avert these downstream effects, but there is no one cure-all. One of the more popular treatments is the use of either felled logs or straw wattles - long tubes of plastic mesh packed with straw. Workers place the barriers horizontally across the slope of a hill, where they slow the flow of water, and catch silt as it slides downhill.