Early this week, workers began the lengthy process of helping the Castle Rock Fire area recover from the powerful conflagration that impacted the eastern Smoky Mountain and Ketchum areas during 20 smoky days last summer.
Though the flames are perhaps only now starting to become a distant memory, impacts the blaze continues to have on human lives and property could pose significant dangers if left unmitigated, a news release from the Sawtooth National Forest states.
In the weeks after the 48,520-acre fire's containment on Sept. 4, natural resource specialists working on the Sawtooth National Forest Burned Area Emergency Response team assessed the fire's many impacts. Out of this process, they proposed a number of restoration and soil-stabilizing treatments to reduce the likelihood of debris flows following heavy rainfall and to improve habitat for local wildlife.
Work on implementing the treatments, approved by the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., began this week on Wednesday.
As part of the work, the BAER team will implement hillside treatments that include mulching with wood fibers and straw and seeding with native grasses and shrubs. Native shrubs will be planted where they are most effective in stabilizing slopes, thereby minimizing risks to the public.
The BAER team will also oversee trail and road improvements and noxious weed monitoring and treatments inside the fire area. Officials expect to implement temporary closures on select trails and areas within the fire perimeter during the next few weeks to ensure the safety of the public and those completing the restoration activities.
Notices regarding the closures will be posted at key trailheads and locations in and around the fire area as well as at the Ketchum Ranger Station.
Wood mulch and some straw mulch will be applied by helicopter in select locations in the Warm Springs Creek drainage to reduce down-slope water flow by absorbing and slowly releasing aboveground runoff, likely to occur due to reduced soil cover. The mulching will also protect the native seedbed and retain moisture on burned slopes to aid in the recovery of vegetation.
All wood and straw mulch will be certified weed free, the Sawtooth news release states. The Forest Service is also requiring additional screening of the wood and straw mulch to ensure that it doesn't contain cheatgrass seeds.
After the 2005 Valley Road Fire in the White Cloud Mountains near Stanley, a contractor provided mulch containing seeds of noxious weeds for the restoration effort, Sawtooth National Forest botanist and BAER team member Kim Pierson said last fall.
"This is a very proactive step to prevent non-native plants from establishing in burned areas as a result of restoration treatments," Pierson said.
Local residents should expect to see heavy truck traffic bringing in the wood and straw mulch beginning this week. The forest has identified several spots along Warm Springs Road where the mulch will be delivered. Staging areas will be in large pullouts along the road beginning at the parking area below Penny Lake up to Frenchman's Bend.
A map of staging areas and treatment areas is available at the Ketchum Ranger Station.
To restore vegetation diversity and improve wildlife habitat within the fire area, more than 30,000 bitterbrush and sagebrush seedlings will be planted in the Warm Springs drainage. With financial support from the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, individual plant protectors have been purchased by the Forest Service to ensure the survival of the seedlings. A local planting contractor will plant the seedlings.
Opportunities for volunteers to help plant red stem dogwood seedlings along burned creeks and riparian areas will occur later this spring.
Seeding of native grasses and forbs occurred within the Limekiln drainage on the south end of the fire area last October. Areas will be assessed this summer to determine if additional vegetation planting or seeding is needed to promote recovery. Officials anticipate wrapping up all restoration activities by June 15.