As forests burn, restoration plan is already in place

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.

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.

Another widespread technique is aerial seeding, in which thousands of pounds of short-lived grass seeds are scattered over a burned area. According to Max Copenhagen, the watershed restoration manager for the US Forest Service, seeding is so common because it is an intuitive approach. "It gives you exactly what you need: the vegetation back," he says. "So you're getting seed out there in places where you know you need it." But, Mr. Copenhagen points out, aerial seeding is not a panacea. When it works, it works well: the plants' roots grab hold of the soil, and the grass itself acts as a thatch by catching some of the rainwater.

More frequently, however, it does not work as well as rehabilitation experts hope. "Grass doesn't start growing until after rain, and rain is responsible for sediment movement," notes Jan Beyers, a US Forest Service plant ecologist and co-author of a new study evaluating BAER treatments. If the rain is strong enough to wash away the sediment, it can wash away the grass seed, too.

Another important component of the BAER team is archaeology. Exposed archaeological sites are especially vulnerable to theft and erosion. So when archaeologists find important "heritage sites" near campgrounds and other recreation areas, they may ask that temporary ground cover, like mulch, be spread over the site to protect it until natural vegetation returns.

Sometimes after severe wildfires, soil can become impermeable to water and can be tilled to bring back a porous surface. Trail and recreation experts look for teetering trees and other dangers near campsites and trails: hazards like sinkholes, where tree trunks burned so hot that all they left behind is a pile of soft ash. Wildlife biologists suggest monitoring for endangered species. Ecologists ask that fire lines be monitored for any nonnative plant species that may have crept in on the treads of a bulldozer.

However, Copenhagen points out, BAER is a "band-aid" approach, prescribing only work that is immediately necessary after a fire. "Nature's going to take its course, and nature's going to heal a lot of this in time," he says.

Most people, however, are unwilling to wait that long. "If we waited for nature to reforest it," says John Swanson, a district ranger in central California's Stanislaus National Forest, "ultimately, perhaps in the course of a thousand years or two thousand years, we would have pine forest again. Maybe."

In the Stanislaus, restoration efforts are still in progress for a fire that occurred 27 years ago. Mr. Swanson looks at a stand of 20 year-old ponderosa pines. The ground beneath them is blanketed in bracken fern, bear clover, and lupine. "Doesn't that plantation look nice?" he asks. "Can you imagine how beautiful that's gonna be 50 years from now?" Most forest districts recruit volunteers to help with this kind of replanting once the BAER work is complete.

Because forest officials must ensure that the young trees are from the same gene pool as the original trees - with adaptations to the right altitude, day length, and disease resistance - they collect the seeds from local trees. The seeds are planted in pots and allowed to grow until they are large enough to be transplanted to the forest floor. Then, to ensure that the small saplings will not be choked out by shrubs and grasses, they are monitored carefully and, whenever possible, "weeded" on a regular basis.

This plantation is proof that slowly, ever so slowly and with a lot of help, a forest's scars begin to heal.

Back in the Cleveland National Forest, rain pounds the bare earth and soil particles loosen and give way. Some of the oak trees are resprouting and the ground is covered with young manzanita and chamise, but the soil is still unstable. Because this mountain was too steep for any treatment the BAER team could prescribe, water pouring off the hillside quickly turns black with dirt and ash and the roadway fills with debris: scorched logs, rocks, mud flows.

One Forest Service official, looking at debris flows like this, notes: "If it's gonna come down, it's gonna come down. Sometimes there's nothing you can do to stop it." Mother Nature, she says, is good at taking care of her own. Like Copenhagen, she knows that nature will heal all of this in time.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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