Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hydromulch going strong


Using a Sky Crane helicopter nicknamed the “Incredible Hulk,” more than 1.4 million gallons of green hydromulch has been dropped onto the blackened front range of the Santa Ynez Mountains since last Wednesday.
And no, it’s not an effort spruce up the mountains for the sake of beauty.
After the Gap Fire scorched 9,544 acres of mountainside in July, officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Barbara County and cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara have been busily preparing for potentially catastrophic floods.

Minus the thick vegetation that once held the soil together and sucked up water, officials fear widespread flooding and vast soil erosion could occur in the event of heavy winter rains.
While creek clearing and other measures have been taken to clear a path for the expected torrent of water, much of which will pass directly through Goleta before making its way through the infield at the Santa Barbara Airport on its way to the ocean, officials believe the green carpet of organic mulch could go a long way towards protecting the soil and hopefully decreasing the likelihood of mass soot buildups in creeks.
Now it’s just a race against time, and the “Incredible Hulk,” aided by a fleet of six small airplanes, are slightly ahead of schedule.
“I’m quite impressed by it,” said Santa Barbara District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky. “It’s going real well.”
Chojnacky said this is the first time hydromulching has been used in the Los Padres National Forest to patch up a burn area.
A large part of the reason the Forest Service has resorted to the expensive mulch, which costs $3,200 per acre (the Forest Service plans to spread the green substance over 1,531 acres at a cost of $4.8 million), is the worst-case scenario cost of what could happen if they don’t do everything possible to stem possible flooding.
Chojnacky said the ambitious “emergency restoration,” of which hydromulching is at the center, has been implemented as a result of the projected value at risk, which she said has been estimated to top several billion.
“It’s all aimed at reducing that,” she said.
According to the Forest Service, the blend of hydromulch being used is entirely organic, consisting of recycled paper and wood fiber, water and a binding agent made of guar gum, a plant-based substance commonly used to thicken food. The mulch contains no fertilizer or seeds.
Forest Service officials said the green dye, also organic, will fade to a brownish-gray hue after a few days on the ground.
So far the transformation of the hills behind Goleta has been fast and furious.
The six Air Tractor Turbine AT-802 airplanes have completed roughly 250 flights out of the Santa Barbara Airport per day. The planes carry 800 gallons of the mulch, while “Incredible Hulk” carries a whopping 2,000 tons per load that reportedly blankets an acre of land per trip.
As of yesterday, 1,286 loads of hydromulch had been dropped on 602.4 acres of the burn area. The “Incredible Hulk” alone has completed 302 round trips, the average time of each round trip taking mere six minutes.
When the 1,531 acres of National Forest are dusted with the mulch, the crews will immediately begin doing the same to an additional 1,000 acres of mostly private land.
The Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service is paying for 75 percent of this bill, while about $210,000 of the total cost is being split between Goleta, Santa Barbara and the county.
County Deputy Director of Water Resources Tom Fayram said the remaining acreage charred by the Gap Fire is either too steep to benefit from the hydromulch, or is predominately rock.
Chojnacky said the best way for the public to lend a helping hand is to not venture into the wilderness where the hydromulch has been dropped.
She said the mulch is fragile and could easily be ruined by footsteps.
As a result of the hydromulching, several areas of the National Forest will be closed to the public. They include stretches of West Camino Cielo Road west of Windermere Ranch and east of Broadcast Peak. The closure also includes the Lizard’s Mouth and Playground areas. The closures do not impact private property owners.


Anonymous said...

Happy that this is taking place, even if the noise from the helos is very loud as they flew low over my home on West Camino Cielo yesterday. I think the deer flies and owls have sought refuge elsewhere! No pre-dawn hooting from the trees this morning.

Anonymous said...

Ridiculously expensive placebo- not likely to protect anybody beyond 1-2 small rain events.

For the amount of money the USFS and SB spent- they could have had way more, better, and longer lasting protection.

How about taking that ~ 8 Million dollars and buying one of those helicopters or several planes to fight the fires- be proactive rather than reactive.