Fear of rain: Biscuit Fire redux

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at ipns.com
Tue Sep 17 22:07:35 EST 2002

>From The Oregonian, Sept. 15, 2002, p A19 (Oregon & The West)

After flames, the fear is of rain
Foresters plot to minimize winter runoff damage on land the Biscuit
fire scorched

By WENDY OWEN, Correspondent, The Oregonian
	BROOKINGS - The Biscuit blaze - which hopscotched through the rugged
Siskiyou National Forest - burned 80 percent of the 500,000-acre fire
zone, damaging almost 40 percent moderately or severely.
	Satellite and infrared mapping shows 16 percent of the forest is
severely burned and 23 percent is moderately charred.
	About 41 percent of the acreage - roughly 205,000 acres - burned at a
lower level, the fire crept along the ground in those areas without
scorching the earth or involving the canopy. Much of that acreage was
intentionally set alight by firefighters robbing the main blaze of
	The fire created a mosaic of black, orange and green - sometimes
leaving patches of black tree skeletons standing next to untouched
forest. About 20 percent of the territory contained by the fire line
was unburned or lightly burned.
	Forest officials won't know how many trees, flowers and other plants
survived the hottest flames until spring.
	Even the substantially baked flora, some of which cooked at 600
degrees, may still be alive, said Jon Brazier, a fire recovery
specialist. "You get fooled sometimes as to what's going to live and
die," he said.
	Although the Biscuit fire continues to burn in islands within the
containment lines, Brazier's goal is to prepare the forest for winter
rains expected to begin Nov. 1.
	The rains will extinguish the remaining pockets of flame, but they
can also wash burned and fallen debris down unstable slopes, creating
	The after-effect of fire is erosion, said Brazier, who leads the
Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team. The severely burned areas
are the most vulnerable. No ground cover remains to block runoff and
in places the damaged soil is water-repellent.
	To demonstrate, Brazier stepped from his truck onto a hillside
moonscape of gray ash and black trees near the Quail Prairie Lookout
northeast of Brookings. Scraping away ash to what appeared to be arid
dirt, he dribbled water onto the soil and timed its absorption. Two
minutes later, the water remained pooled. Oils form burned plants have
sunk into the earth, Brazier said, making it repel water.
	"Usually, these soils have the ability to absorb the kind of rain we
get here," Brazier said.
	The 80 inches of average rainfall on the western half of the Siskiyou
Mountains would likely pour down the hill, he said.
	Similar runoff could occur to the east, near Cave Junction, where
about 60 inches of rain fall each year.
	If a road municipal watershed or other property lies downhill, the
team may stabilize the hillside with mulch or native grass. Workers
might also divert the runoff, but if nothing is in danger, they'll
leave it alone.
	"Our preference is to do nothing and let the site recover naturally,"
Brazier said.
	At least 270,000 acres, 54 percent of the fire area, won't be
assessed for rehabilitation because it's too steep or rocky for
treatment to be effective, said a fire information officer, Erin
	Also, protected areas such as the 150,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness,
in the center of the Biscuit fire, will be left to nature.
	Connelly said the 1964 Wilderness Act requires the Kalmiopsis to
recuperate naturally. Much of the wilderness is included in the
270,000 acres that are too steep or rocky to repair.
	The team has six weeks to complete the work before the first rains.
Connolly estimates they can rehabilitate about 300 acres a day, or
about 11,000 acres before the first of November. The rehabilitation
team is still working on its assessment of the damage and its
recommendation for rehabilitation, which is required before federal
money will be allocated. The team's plan is expected to be completed
Monday and work could begin as soon as Tuesday.
	Rehabilitation could include clearing and repairing culverts to
ensure roads don't wash out, stabilizing soil with mulch or grass and
protecting archaeological sites.
	The team has received $180,000 to post warning signs at unstable
areas and to fill sewage pits left after outdoor toilets burned, among
other immediate tasks.
	The average cost of rehabilitation following a fire is roughly 5
percent of the cost of fighting it. So far, it has cost an estimated
$145 million to suppress the Biscuit fire.

Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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