Fire Contained, Mudslides Threaten

Flagstaff, AZ – Almost two weeks ago the Flagstaff community was flanked by fire. But now the major threat is water. Although the Schultz fire is contained, the monsoon rains have started, and there's potential for mudslides. A team is assessing the Schultz fire damage and coming up with a plan to try to prevent flooding. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales took a tour of the burned area and reports they don't have much time.

Several miles of fire hose are being coiled up in Lockett Meadow as firefighters battling the blaze head home but others are shifting into their new role as forest rehabilitators. They're rebuilding roads, cleaning up dozer line and cutting down burned trees while they wait for more orders from the Burned Area Emergency Response Team -- or BAER team.

The BAER team will first look at what or who is at risk. And in this case people and homes in the Timberline and Fernwood communities are sitting in a potential mudslide path.

Resource advisor Dick Fleishman is a soils and water specialist.

FLEISHMAN: The rehab is the non glorious part of the fire the fire is very visual this is not very visual but it's probably the most important part once we've got the homes protected from the fire now we got to protect them from the water coming that way we're running on short time.

In addition to the communities at the base of the mountain, two water pipelines, a power line, hundreds of archaeological sites, threatened and endangered species and their habitats are also at risk.

To try to predict how the mountain will respond to the monsoons, the BAER team will test the soil to see if it repels water. And if it does, that means more water flowing during heavy storms.

Normally soil is porous and quickly absorbs water. Fleishman demonstrates by pouring water from his water bottle on a gray ashy patch of dirt and waits to see if it ponds or seeps.

FLEISHMAN: If it's hydrophobic it will stay ponded after 10 seconds that stayed on for a couple seconds then you dig down pour water on it 1, 2, 3, 4... looks hydrophobic to me it's like pouring water on wax.

The soil often repels water if it's severely burned. And Fleishman says the Schultz Fire was the most severe fire he's seen in his 32 years working fires.

Jim Bedlion (BED-lin), a former fire manager, agrees. He remembers fighting the Radio Fire on Mount Elden in 1977. And he recalls part of the mountain sliding onto North Highway 89A. He retired after 30 years with the Forest Service but he still works as a contractor.

BEDLION: It gets in your blood and stays there.

He's been working long hours on the Schultz Fire rehab effort. (SFX excavator) Bedlion and his son use a large excavator to pick up a dead burned tree. They use it like a massive broom to sweep over the dozer line and create a big cloud of dust.

BEDLION: It's got a lot of challenges on the rehab. It's got steep slopes loose material got a lot of washes valleys that need to be cleaned out so when the summer rains come that they can be taken care of.

In addition to cleaning out the culverts, Fleishman says they can cut down logs and stake them in the hillside to prevent mudslides and "hay bale bomb" the peaks from the sky. They also can use something called a hydro mulching machine to spray wet mulch from a helicopter.

Peaks District Ranger Mike Elson looks out across a lush green Lockett Meadow at a charred hillside.

ELSON: Hopefully we'll see a lot of vegetation start to come up in the understory next year to stabilize the soil.

He says some grasses and weeds will sprout right away. And aspens actually thrive in these conditions so aspen seedlings will also emerge in the coming months. But in areas that burned the hottest the forest service will most likely reseed. And it will be several decades before we see ponderosa trees. And in some places we may not see them at all.

In the meantime the area is closed to hikers until hazardous trees can be cut down and rocks stabilized. Resource advisor Dick Fleishman drives along the forest road through the burned area.

FLEISHMAN: I walked in there four days ago about 100 yards got scared and turned around it did not make me feel comfortable at all there's a lot of dead trees.

There will be a public meeting Wednesday night at Coconino High School to share the BAER report findings. Forest officials will also answer questions about alerting people in the event of a flood, a mudslide or a road closure.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.