Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rehab efforts on Gap Fire just beginning

BY ERIC LINDBERG
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

Although the flames of the Gap Fire have long been quelled and only faint wisps of smoke might be seen wafting from scorched earth, the battle for forest workers, local leaders and nearby property owners is just beginning.
While the blaze effectively thinned out brush that hadn’t burned for half a century, it also exposed steep slopes that could come sliding down toward populated areas at the base of the mountainside.

Standing on West Camino Cielo overlooking a scorched Tecolote Canyon littered with a patchwork of blackened vegetation, District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky of the Los Padres National Forest said rehabilitation efforts are already underway to help mitigate the impact from any heavy rainfall this winter.
Once containment lines began to grow cold, firefighters immediately started covering them with “slash” — brush they had cut away days earlier to prevent flames from spreading.
Jagged scars cut across the terrain by bulldozers are being cross-crossed with “waterbars,” trenches designed to direct water away from the exposed earth.
Installing debris basins and improving drainage areas below the burn area is one strategy that will likely be implemented. Hydromulch, a slurry of seed and mulch that could be spread across the torched mountainside, is another option.
“A lot of the work is going to be downstream,” Chojnacky said.
Mark Courson, a battalion chief with the U.S. Forest Service, said workers will also ensure culverts and drainage areas in forest areas are cleared of debris.
“When I first started with the Forest Service, rehab was minimal,” he said. “…We’re getting way smarter about it and putting a lot more emphasis on it.”
To that point, expert hydrologists, biologists and geologists — members of a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team — are wrapping up a report that will outline more comprehensive rehabilitation techniques.
Still in draft form, the document has been circulated to local agencies for comment and will need approval from top forest officials in Washington, DC.
“Whatever is done will be controversial and, to some people, it will not be enough,” Chojnacky said.
William Boyer, a spokesman for the County of Santa Barbara, said preliminary information the county has received from the U.S. Forest Service has raised concern about the potential for a flood of sediment from the burned area.
“While we’re disappointed with that we’ve seen in the preliminary reports, we’re at least hopeful that they’re hearing us and they’ll do more,” he said. “…The county would like to see a very aggressive approach to mitigating the potential impacts of the flood and the mud.”
Four main watershed areas — San Pedro Canyon, upper Glen Annie Canyon, upper Carneros Canyon and Bell Canyon — are of primary concern, he said, particularly with estimates that as much as 300,000 cubic yards of mud, dirt and debris could come flooding down the mountain.
“We’re looking at doing anything and everything we can possibly do,” Boyer said.
That includes clearing streams and conduits under bridges and roadways, installing debris barriers, getting sandbag stations prepped and improving sediment basins.
The county is working with city staff at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport to bring in equipment that will excavate a sediment basin to ensure it is in shape for winter rains, he said. That work could begin as soon as next week.
County workers are also expected to begin clearing creeks and streams of debris in the coming weeks as part of an annual maintenance plan that is taking on added significance this year.
“They’re thinking that potentially a 25-year rain event … because of the conditions there, is actually going to equal a 100-year rain event,” Boyer said. “Everyone is concerned.”
He expressed hope that forest officials will place more emphasis on debris barriers and netting to catch large rocks — anything above and beyond the aerial mulching he said they are proposing at this time.
“Up until the point the report is signed, we are still hopeful in our contacts with them that they’ll consider some of the things we’re suggesting,” he said.
Dan Singer, Goleta’s city manager, echoed those concerns, explaining that city leaders are worried that U.S. Forest Service leaders aren’t as “keyed in” to the significance of the downstream impacts as they should be.
“We feel they need to take some pretty serious measures to prevent the impact downstream,” he said.
But Chojnacky said there is little point in using strategies that won’t prove effective.
“There’s not a lot we can do to prepare, because we have some slopes that are upwards of 60 degrees,” she said.
And until federal officials sign off on the BAER report, it’s premature to say what those suggested techniques will be, authorities said. Even so, forest officials are taking steps now to ensure the situation doesn’t worsen.
Specifically, Chojnacky said, authorities are closing off West Camino Cielo between the Winchester Gun Club and Broadcast Peak to keep off-road vehicles from tearing up the recently exposed terrain.
“There’s just too much access to these dozer lines,” she said.
With approximately 30 miles of bulldozer lines and 20 to 25 miles of hand-built lines, authorities are hoping to focus on rehabilitation efforts rather than fighting to keep four-wheelers and motorcycles off the tempting but temporary trails.
Motorized vehicles will chew up the earth, damaging waterbars and scattering mulch spread across containment lines, Courson said.
“That just ruins everything we’re trying to do,” he said.
Nonetheless, people are free to return on foot to burned areas, authorities said, including a popular hiking area near the origin of the fire known as Lizard’s Mouth.
“You’re going to get black and dirty,” Courson said. “That’s your biggest issue.”
Officials have already fenced off several bulldozer lines that jump off from West Camino Cielo and plan to install gates on the roadway soon.
Beyond rehabilitation efforts during the next few months, Singer said raising awareness in the community is a critical component to reducing the potential impact of the 9,443-acre fire.
He hopes a series of community workshops, neighborhood meetings and public outreach efforts will educate those in the possible path of landslides or floods about how they can prepare for what may now appear to be a distant concern.
“One of the important messages to the community for those who might be afflicted is that it’s important for them to get flood insurance,” Singer said.
A meeting is in the works for later this month, designed to offer an overarching look at the issues. Singer said the city also hopes to meeting with neighborhoods to address more specific questions and concerns.

1 comment:

Forest funds are wasted in Iraq said...

the Blame Game has begun.