Fire team preps for winter

Written by Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat November 20, 2013 12:30 pm

The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team is hurrying to put the finishing touches on projects to stabilize soil and repair roads damaged by the Rim Fire.

Mostly clear weather over the past couple months has allowed the Burned Area Emergency Response team to accomplish nearly every one of its goals before the first major winter storms hit the area. Helicopter contractors worked Tuesday to complete the final project, aerial mulching, before the end of the week.

“The weather has been good, so that’s why we’re rushing to get the straw out,” said Jimmy Shuler, a helicopter pilot for High Performance Helicopters.

The process of aerial mulching involves covering the forest floor with a 1-inch layer of straw, intended to keep rain and snow from further damaging the burned soils underneath. About 4 million pounds of straw will be spread across the entire 4,000-acre project area.

The Rim Fire burned more than 402 square-miles in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park from August to October. The BAER team began doing emergency projects Sept. 25 to prepare the damaged landscape for winter.

Shuler, of Spicer Lake, Idaho, was picking up loads containing up to 2,400 pounds of rice straw from the Jawbone Quarry area and spreading them over the slopes along the Bear Creek drainage Tuesday.

The BAER team previously identified each area for mulching based on a number of risk factors, including threats to life and property, according to Team Leader Tom Beddow. For example, some treated areas were above cultural sites and roads that could be damaged by increased water runoff.

“This straw project is significant in terms of logistics,” Beddow said.

The straw itself must come from a certified weed-free farm and the truck drivers transporting it must stop at an inspection point before entering the burned area. Inspectors check the certificate, hauling permit and visually examine the bales for any suspected weeds.

Any spot on the ground where the bales will be unloaded must also be cleared of weeds and certified by a Forest Service botanist.

“Every place a bale touches, you have to check for certification,” Beddow said.

Another requirement is to monitor the area for about a year.

All of this diligence is necessary to prevent the introduction and spread of nonnative plant species and noxious weeds that can further harm the forest, Beddow said.

Since starting work on Sept. 25, the BAER team has also completed a number of projects along 392 miles of roads, about 42 more miles than originally planned. Some of those projects have included constructing graded dips, installing signs and repairing culverts.

“This weather has been exceptional,” Beddow said. “We thought we would be done 10 or 15 days ago.”

Beddow said most of the BAER team is scheduled to go home on Friday. The team once featured more than 200 Forest Service employees from across the nation, but that number has since dropped to about 80.

About 35 employees will monitor the effectiveness of the projects and patrol the area to look for damage after storms. Contractors will also be on-call to help complete repairs when needed, Beddow said.

Beddow, a 44-year Forest Service veteran, also plans on returning home Friday to Springerville, Ariz. 

Beddow became a BAER team leader after retiring from the Forest Service in 2007. Over the past three years, he’s worked on fire recovery projects across more than 1 million acres of forest land in the western United States.

The BAER team received about $8.9 million for Rim Fire-related projects and only about $5.9 million has been spent so far. Beddow said he expects a savings of possibly up to $2.25 million, which could be used for further monitoring and repair work as needed.

“It will be good to leave knowing that we overproduced without increasing budget and came in with some savings,” Beddow said. “That’s all from looking for efficiencies, contracts coming low and just getting the work done.”