Colorado’s Scorched Earth
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TOM BEARDEN: It was a hellish summer in the West. First, the forests burned 6.5 million acres, an area roughly the size of Maryland. And after the fires went out, when it rained, billions of tons of mud cascaded down the mountainsides. In Durango, Colorado, whole neighborhoods were devastated.
RON CORBIN, Homeowner: It’s bad. Best thing I can tell you. It’s bad. We’ve had it three feet deep right here on this road. If we didn’t have all these dikes, that House would be gone, that one would be gone, that one would be gone.
TOM BEARDEN: One of the worst fires took place 25 miles from Denver. The so-called Hayman fire was the largest in state history, 137,000 acres. 8,000 people were evacuated, 133 homes destroyed, $39 million to put it out. When the last flames were finally extinguished on July 18, a race began to prevent what happened in Durango from happening here. Ken Kanaan leads a U.S. Forest Service “BAER” team, the acronym stands for Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team.
KEN KANAAN, BAER Team Leader: About half of the 240 square miles that burned, burned in high and moderate burn intensity. What happens when we have high intensity fires like that is we lose our canopy cover, we lose our ground cover, and we lose our litter layer.
TOM BEARDEN: The floods occur because the soil in a burned forest literally repels water. Baer team member Randy Wilkerson, explains.
RANDY WILKERSON: It is highly repellent if a water drop will sit on the surface of that soil for about 45 seconds. You’d call that soil highly repellent. And it’s a phenomenon that occurs naturally in many of these soils in this area, and it’s just exacerbated by the intensely burned areas. We’ll put a drop of water on this burned area. That drop of water has just beaded up on the surface, and will sit there, showing no signs of soaking into the surface at all.
TOM BEARDEN: To contain potential flash floods, the BAER team started by building sandbag walls to prevent water from concentrating in one area and to cut down the flow of sediment on the hillsides. In late July, crews began to “scarify” the soil– break it up– using all-terrain vehicles specially equipped with harrows and seeding machines. The idea is to let the water to penetrate the surface layer and allow the seed to sprout. The work was done by hand in places where vehicles couldn’t go. By August, they started mulching.
BETH WILSON, USDA Forest Service: Now what we’re doing is we’re dropping straw mulch by helicopter on top of those seeded areas. Seeded and scarified areas, so that we can allow the seed to germinate. The straw will hold moisture and provide shade, so that the seed will germinate properly and provide a ground cover to mitigate erosion and also rejuvenate the area.
TOM BEARDEN: And on about 3,000 acres, they used a more sophisticated technique called hydro mulching. It was applied by helicopter, and by truck.
BETH WILSON: What you see here is the wood fiber part of the hydro mulch, which was sprayed from an air crane helicopter. You also see some of the seed. This helps hold the soil down while it’s dry, but allows the rain to come. It holds the moisture from the rain, so the grass can grow like you see here.
TOM BEARDEN: The BAER team eventually spent $18 million on emergency treatment out of an original budget of $24 million. That’s because expected heavy rains never arrived. But some, like Dr. Lee MacDonald, wonder if some of the emergency treatments really work. He’s a professor of land use hydrology at Colorado State University.
DR. LEE MacDONALD: Clearly more research needs to be done. It’s very difficult to plan what kind of rehabilitation you should be doing on a particular site if you don’t have much data on the relative effectiveness of these different treatments under different rainfall regimes, under different climatic regimes, under different soil types, and under different conditions, and what level of protection those different in the case of the Hayman fire, I think we were extremely lucky this past summer in that we didn’t have very many large storm events.
TOM BEARDEN: MacDonald is concerned that the government won’t fund adequate scientific follow up studies in coming years.
DR. LEE MacDONALD: I think in general, society tends to focus on getting things done, and monitoring is not as interesting, it’s not as sexy. The usual tendency for most agencies, whether you’re talking about wetland restoration or stream restoration or post-fire rehabilitation, is to put a lot of emphasis on getting something done to restoring the channel, to putting in a wetland, whatever it is, and there’s typically much less interest in terms of the longer-term monitoring.
TOM BEARDEN: Joe Meade is the acting forest supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, the site of the Hayman fire. He agrees more research and monitoring is needed, but he believes the agency’s treatments are effective.
JOE MEADE, USDA Forest Service: We’ve done some emergency treatments that will help to very quickly heal the land. It’s much like, if you will, when one of us might go to the hospital and have an operation, the systemic problems that we went in for are taken care of through emergency treatment, much like we’ve just completed for the fire. We’ve got a lot of therapy to do to bring restorative activity to the Hayman area, which will take several years to help expedite the natural recovery of the area.
TOM BEARDEN: The Forest Service estimates that the long-term rehabilitation of the Hayman fire burn area will continue for three to five years, and cost an additional $18 million to $50 million. That could bring the total price tag for this one fire to more than $100 million.