Inside history's biggest wildfire recovery effort

Workers in California clear ditches to prevent mudslides, and seed hills to revive a landscape.

As a safety officer with a wildfire-recovery team, Randy Draeger spends his days making sure workers don't get struck by falling trees, bitten by pit bulls, or run over by bulldozers. But his biggest challenge is preventing exhaustion. Struggling against shortages of equipment and supplies, his colleagues are in a hurry, rushing to stabilize southern California's charred landscape before a date no one can name.

"The deadline is the first big storm," Mr. Draeger says, describing the risks of removing abandoned cars and appliances from drainage paths. "That's our goal."

At stake is the survival of people and property, not to mention plants and animals. Armed with new-fangled satellite imagery and old-fashioned elbow grease, beleaguered workers are launching projects ranging from the relocation of endangered frogs to the mulching of hillsides by helicopter. In all, it's the biggest and most complicated wildfire-recovery effort in American history.

"This is going to take a while," says Erv Gasser, supervisor of a federal Burned Area Emergency Response team, while touring this Indian reservation in the backcountry 35 miles northeast of San Diego. "We're not talking a few days. It's more on the line of a few weeks to months."

Nearly a month after 1,100 square miles were burned, the biggest challenges lie in simply finding the necessary supplies - everything from bulldozers to bags of seed. Only recently did response teams even figure out what they will need. "We've got to go out looking for [supplies] like anyone else does," Mr. Gasser says. "We have to find the source and get the bids."

Workers, at least, seem to be in good supply. Dozens of young people from the California Conservation Corps take long bus rides to the San Pasqual Indian Reservation each day. Along with a Navajo team from Arizona, they excavate clogged culverts, stack sandbags around homes, and cut down dead trees. During breaks, they gawk at the paddle-like stems of prickly pear cactuses that have melted into forms that look like creations of Salvador Dali.

The dangers of erosion

The hills, about 1,000 feet high in this area, are graveyards of gnarled limbs and blackened dirt, giving no hints of their potential to get slippery when wet. "The soils in southern California are very erosive. They fall down the slopes even naturally, and when they get a lot of water on them, they tend to erode very readily in the best of times," says Matt Mathes of the US Forest Service. "With the vegetation burned away, there's nothing to hold the soil."

No magic solution exists to prevent erosion. But workers have plenty of tools to choose from. Among them: fiber rolls (giant flexible sausages that act as dams behind homes), fiber mats (25-foot-by-8-foot straw mats that hold up hillsides), and "K-rails" (runoff-blocking concrete berms often used to line highways and protect buildings from car bombs).

Fortunately, virtually no major storms have hit southern California since the fires came under control in early November. But the region does usually get heavy winter rains, though forecasters are uncertain how intense the precipitation will be this year. "We just don't know what it looks like," says climatologist Larry Riddle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

The counties affected by the wildfires are notoriously dry: The city of San Diego averages 10 inches of rain a year, little more than Phoenix. But mountain areas may receive four times as much, and freak storms are possible, like the one that dumped hail and five inches of rain on Los Angeles in one day earlier this month.

Like humans, plants and animals also face danger from the one-two punch of fire and rain. In the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles, flooding threatened to wash out endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs, so biologists temporarily relocated several of them to the Los Angeles Zoo.

Forestry officials are also monitoring bald eagles to insure they aren't disturbed when helicopters start dumping seeds and tons of straw - which act as a sponge during rains - on hillsides.

Lions and coyotes and bears - OK

In general, however, biologists aren't too worried about the fate of deer, black bears, mountain lions, and coyotes.

"The population will essentially rebound," predicts Chamois Anderson of the California Department of Fish & Game. "These animals have evolved with fires, and they typically know what to do. They flee and go great distances."

It helped that the fires burned in what biologists call a "mosaic" pattern, leaving some areas untouched and able to provide food and cover for wildlife. In fact, the fires appear to have burned away heavy brush that prevented big-horned sheep from migrating. "In a way," says Ms. Anderson, "it's a really exciting time."

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