Friday, September 28, 2007

Fire recovery cost put at $2.25 million

If granted, funds will pay for reseeding, slope stabilization and trail work

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle earlier this month inspects a mudslide in an area burned by the Castle Rock Fire. It is hoped that restoration efforts would prevent more such erosion in the future. Photo by Mountain Express

Officials with the U.S. Forest Service have submitted to the agency's regional and national offices a $2.25 million funding request to pay for post-fire recovery efforts in the Castle Rock Fire area.

A response to the funding request could come as soon as today or sometime early next week, said John Chatel, the leader of the federal Burned Area Emergency Response team assigned to assess post-fire recovery options for the large 48,520-acre burn area around Ketchum.

"We hope to get approval fairly quickly," Chatel said.

The primary reason for the sense of urgency cited by members of the BAER team is the fast-approaching snows of winter, which could begin to accumulate in early November. Officials hope to get as much seeding, slope stabilization and trail work completed before the arrival of winter to help prevent erosion next spring.

Still, the arrival of early fall snows does have at least some benefits, said Kurt Nelson, the Ketchum District ranger for the Sawtooth National Forest.

Nelson said he was glad to see the snows on high mountains surrounding the Wood River Valley last weekend.

"That to me says we're getting close to season end on this fire," he said.

Chatel said that while the danger posed by fire has certainly passed, that doesn't mean there aren't continuing concerns.

He said all one has to do is look at the landslides caused by the statistically insignificant rainstorm that passed through the Warm Springs Creek area Sept. 5 to see what kinds of dangers still exist. He said prior to that event, BAER team members had done a quick preliminary assessment looking at potential hazards in the wake of the fire, which fire officials declared fully contained a day earlier, on Sept. 4.

"A lot of the things we were predicting could happen in certain areas did," Chatel said.

He said that with a full assessment on the Castle Rock Fire area now complete, the post-fire recovery effort now is entering the implementation phase.

Among the actions Chatel and other Forest Service officials said will be completed in the fire area is reseeding in select areas disturbed by bulldozers and other fire suppression efforts. Other actions will include aerial dropping of either straw or wood mulch on some of the most intensely burned hillsides in the Warm Springs drainage and the construction of log stabilizers placed perpendicular to the angle of the slope.

What Forest Service officials have called straw waddles—long tubular-shaped erosion barriers—will also be placed perpendicular to slopes in various locations. On roads inside the fire area, workers will also clean out, improve and in some cases remove culverts.

Addressing what for many local residents may be the most pressing issue, Sawtooth National Recreation Area Public Information Officer Ed Cannady said federal trail crews will construct up to 1,325 drainage structures or waterbars on backcountry trails impacted by the blaze.

Cannady said that of the approximately 90 miles of trail inside the fire area, 82 were impacted to a varying degree by the blaze.

The biggest challenge during the next two to three years will be "keeping those trails and the slopes below them on the hillside," he said.

Cannady said the danger is that increased water flow coming off of burned hillsides could turn trails into watercourses. He said waterbars placed perpendicular to the direction of the trail would help divert storm water from pathways.

"Our challenge is going to be to get the water off the trail as quickly as possible," Cannady said.

Some of the requested funds will also be used to pay for the installation of hazard warning signs along area roads and trails. The signs would warn passersby of the potential for landslides, falling trees and other fire-caused hazards.

Sawtooth National Forest Botanist Kim Pierson said that, starting next spring, she'll be looking for volunteers to help with bitterbrush planting and other post fire recovery actions.

The Castle Rock Fire started in the Warm Springs drainage west of Ketchum Aug. 16 from a lightning strike before threatening several neighborhoods and the infrastructure on Bald Mountain. No structures were burned and no lives were lost.

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