Thompson Ridge fire recovery underway

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BAER > Funds approved, Valles Caldera staff preps for implementation

By Arin McKenna

The Thompson Ridge Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team received final approval for its emergency stabilization request and recommendations for burned areas affected by the Thompson Ridge fire on Tuesday. The Washington office approved $252,700 for emergency treatments within Valles Caldera National Preserve.

A contracting officer was brought in immediately to procure materials and initial treatments could begin as early as next week.

Valles Caldera crews take over from there. The mitigation measures they will employ include:
• Constructing or improving water control features on roads and trails such as dips and low water crossings
• hazard tree reduction
• installing warning signs
• application of seed for soil stabilization
• protection of identified cultural resource sites from flooding

“All of the BAER treatments are programmed to be efficient, effective, the cheapest way to treat areas to get them through the emergency situation,” said BAER Information Officer Cathleen Thompson. “We can’t stop events like flooding. We hope to lessen the impacts, to mitigate it.

“Until long-term strategies come in to help the area completely recover and restore, these treatments just basically try to minimize impact.”

Valles Caldera Director of Natural Resources Marie Rodriguez said the roadwork can begin immediately. Larger projects such as seeding and protecting cultural sites can get underway as soon as materials arrive. Rodriguez anticipates the bulk the work will be done within two weeks and essentially completed within 30 days.

The impacts of the Thompson Ridge fire were relatively mild. Of the 24,000 acres burned, 17,822 were either low severity or appeared to be unburned, approximately 5,500 acres had moderate severity, and only 640 acres burned with high severity. That is all good news for recovery.

“A lot of the moderate burn removed almost all the canopy, but it didn’t have a lot of impact on the organic layer of the soil. When we go to high severity, it’s not just the loss of the canopy but the heating of the soil and the loss of that organic material,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t anticipate the post burn floods to be as severe off this fire as there were off the Las Conchas. The areas that were burned severely are small and they’re spread out.”

Although anywhere tree cover is lost will be subject to flooding for one to three years, having the organic layer and root system in place means a lot of natural re-vegetation can happen very quickly.

“Already we’ve seen that. Where we can get up and look around we’re already seeing grass as well as aspen sprouts come up. So we’re optimistic,” Rodriguez said.

Barley seed will be dropped on areas in danger of soil erosion. The BAER team originally recommended a straw mulch/barley seed mix, but the National Forest Service regional office recommended just seed because the contract can be awarded and implemented much faster. The delay in getting the mulch mix on the ground would decrease its effectiveness.

The annual barley seed does not reproduce. It sprouts once, germinates and grows very quickly and produces considerable biomass in a short period of time.

“So it stabilizes the soil, it shelters the soil from the rain, and then it lays down in the winter and actually provides a mulch. So that’s the intent of putting that seed on,” Rodriguez said.

Structures at the Baca Ranch Historic Headquarters district will be protected individually with concrete Jersey barriers to divert water around them. Sensitive archeological will be similarly protected.

“It reduces the energy of the water and it spreads it out and reduces the amount of impact to any of the structures,” Rodriguez said. “And the good thing about Jersey barriers is they can be placed with very little ground disturbance, they can be left in place for a couple seasons if you continue to get the flooding, and then they can be just removed as that flooding reduces. So they’re a very low impact type of protection.”

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were among the crews that successfully defended he historic headquarters and a stand of old growth forest next to it on the night of June 4th.

Crews will also undertake simpler activities such as clearing debris in stream channels and from culverts after every rain event to prevent blockages that can trap water and release it suddenly with a lot of energy. Septic tanks will be pumped to prevent contamination if flooding occurs. Warning signs will be posted and hazard trees that could injure people or damage property will be felled.

Crews will also be checking burn areas for noxious weeds imported on firefighting equipment and eradicating them.

All the equipment was washed prior to use to reduce the threat.

Once emergency measures stabilize the area, long-term measures will be implemented. The recently completed draft Environmental Impact Statement for the preserve has a plan for fire recovery in place.

That phase will include projects such as “contour felling,” where burned trees are felled and staked to catch soil and seeds in order to stabilize slopes and encourage plant growth.

“We don’t do those actions in an emergency response,” Rodriguez said. “Number one, they’re too time consuming. And even more importantly, those areas that are severely burned, we need to go in and remove hazard trees and things like that before we put an sort of crew in them. The area’s too dangerous to go in immediately following the burn, and that kind of work takes a long time.”

The Valles also has two seed harvesters: one hand held and one pulled by an ATV that will be used to collect local seed for reseeding.

So far, recent rainfalls in the burn area have been light. Only the Lower Redondo area has seen some flooding. Rodriguez is realistic about the possibility of that good luck continuing.

“You have an area that the cover has been removed by fire, and whatever action we take, it won’t stop water and debris from coming off these slopes,” Rodriguez said. “It will reduce and slow it, but we really don’t have the power to stop it.”