KNAU and Arizona News
4:00 am
Thu September 6, 2012

How to Repair a Fire-Damaged Forest

When this summer’s monsoons hit, officials from the Prescott National Forest worried.

In May, the Gladiator Fire, near Crown King, destroyed a good part of the Forest.

And the loss of vegetation can cause soil erosion.

But Forest officials have been managing the burnt area to keep possible flooding down.

And they’ve been having some success.

The Gladiator Fire burned over 16,000 acres in a mountainous part of Prescott National Forest last May.

And recent monsoon storms have meant a large amount of rain falling in a short amount of time.

High slopes, a lack of vegetation due to the fire and heavy rain can mean landslides.

The job of making sure that doesn’t happen,  belongs to Prescott National Forest’s Burn Area Emergency Response team, or BAER.

Team soil specialist Dave Moore and road engineer Daniel Salcido recently surveyed the area.

The first stop is a roadside creek-bed that is under repair after a recent storm..

On this trip, the normally dry waterway was a few inches deep and was filled with fresh soil and small rocks.

“ So it’s transported all this sediment through the system and it deposits it," Moore points out. "You can look here, it’s overloading the system.  You can’t flush it all through the system.”

Erosion that normally takes years or even decades can happen in hours in post wildfire conditions.

The best way to prevent this rapid-paced erosion is to slow down the water so it can be absorbed.

This is most frequently done by adding quick-growing plants, often called cover.

“So you put cover on there and when a rain drop falls from the sky, it hits some type of cover and that dissipates the energy and it gradually allows it to go in the soil," Moore said.

The BAER team’s first job was to determine the parts of the burn area that were considered high risk. 

That’s where rapid erosion or a landslide would cause damage to roads or power lines, or private property.

These areas were first treated with barley seed, dropped from airplanes.

Then mulch was dropped over the seed.

“As our mulch starts petering out, it decomposes or oxidizes, we start getting our grass seed coming in," Moore said.

The mulch decays within months, enough time to help the seed take root.

Then the seed gives way to more natural grasses and small shrubs.

And the hope is these shrubs will eventually give way to pine trees again.

The next stop was the top of a steep slope that overlooks the community of Crown King. 

This slope is not only prime for landslides, but so steep that it is hard to figure out how to fix it.

Moore decided to go with the aerial treatment, because there weren’t too many other options.

And he likes what he sees.

“If you look across the landscape, what we like is random vegetation like this," he said. and he gives Salcido a high five. "Good job, Danny!” he laughs. 

The final stop is a patch of land on the road out of the forest.

It was completely untouched by the Gladiator Fire, but it shows the forest’s  future.

In 2008, the Lane 2 Fire burned a large portion of land that sits almost adjacent to where the Gladiator Fire burned.

Part of the burned area sits just above Horsethief Lake.

In order to protect the lake, this area was treated in a similar fashion to what they are doing to parts of the Gladiator Fire.

“Before this was like the initial site we were at, nothing but annuals," he said.  "The annuals are petering out and perennials are taking their place.”

The treatment worked.

Horsethief Lake was protected from the loose sediment that a fire creates.

And as far as they can tell, the fish, plants and birds that rely on the lake are healthy.

Moore, Salcido and the rest of the BAER team hope that their work will be just as successful in the area burned by the Gladiator fire.