Following a serious fire within a national forest, the U.S. Forest Service quickly assembled a Burned Area Emergency Response team to assess the fire’s damage and the potential threat to the public and resources. (See the story below for more information about the BAER program.)
The Mountain Fire BAER team was assembled and dispatched to the San Jacinto Ranger District on July 28. In less than two weeks, the team submitted its report to District Ranger Arturo Delgado.
BAER Coordinator Katie VinZant, Angeles National Forest botanist, discussed the report with the Town Crier Friday, Aug. 9. The Mountain Fire BAER report was her third this year. The San Bernardino National Forest and the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest regional office in Vallejo are reviewing it now.
Potential threats to the Pacific Crest Trail are several, according to VinZant. The hazards include rock falls, possible trees falling, sediment and flooding across the trail. Several district staff, state park staff and BAER team members have said the rainstorms following the Mountain Fire have washed away portions of the trail and locations where they resume are not visible, thus raising the chances of hikers becoming lost or falling and injuring themselves. There is no vegetation to help hold the soil.
Also the dry rabble, caused from wind-blown debris, is also obscuring the trail’s path. “You couldn’t distinguish where the trail, significant portions of the PCT was,” VinZant added. “The trail manager had to turn around. It’s very hazardous.”
While the trails at lower elevations appear fine and might entice hikers, “… if they keep hiking they could encounter threats,” she said. “With winter rains and snow, little way to keep the trails open.”
The BAER team has made recommendations to the District, but no official decision has been announced. But Vin Zant was doubtful that the trail could be opened for several months, at least until after the fall and winter rainy season.
For next spring’s annual PCT treks from here to the Canadian border, she predicted the district will re-route the trail. Efforts will be to avoid local roads and keep it in the forest until the PCT can be restored.
The BAER team also assesses the potential damage to habitat of threatened and endangered species within the Fire’s boundaries. These include the mountain yellow-legged frog, Quino checkerspot butterfly and the southwestern willow flycatcher.
“The mountain yellow legged frog population suffered the most impact,” Vin Zant said, “The Willow and Tahquitz Creek areas have incurred major runoff and sediment movement during the post-fire rains.”
Following the winter rains, snow and spring rains, these watershed have a high potential for hyper-concentrated flow, which will further damage and scour the creek beds, Vin Zant stated.
The damage to these creeks, which will affect the MYLF populations, will likely do the same for Lemon Lilies, she said. Since the Lemon Lily is not an endangered or threatened species, the team will not make specific recommendations, although she thought that what benefits the frogs will aid the lilies. She was slightly more optimistic that the flowers have adapted to these sites where fire is part of the ecosystem.
VinZant also said none of her team nor district staff has been able to confirm the rumor that one or more mountain lions had been burned during the fire.
The rainstorms have already helped the vegetative life begin renewing, she said. New-growth grasses were observed in several meadow and riparian locations. In general this was a good sign, according to Vin Zant; however, at some lower elevations in the southern portion of the fire area, she saw cheek grass, an invasive species, beginning to sprout.
Cheek grass has taken over significant portions of the burned areas in the 2009 Station Fire north of Los Angeles, she noted. “It’s depressing.”
With normal rainfall, she expects the chaparral to return to its normal state and about 3 to 5 feet tall within five years. Timber and conifer trees will take much longer to return to pre-fire conditions.
Click here to download a pdf that lists the trails that are closed and those that are open as of noon today (Aug. 14, 2013). The status of the trails changes daily. Closures can be found on the San Bernardino National Forest's website at www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/sbnf/recreation, but even that list isn't always up-to-date.
What is BAER?
While many wildfires cause minimal damage to the land and pose few threats to the land or people downstream, some fires result in damage that requires special efforts to reduce impacts afterwards. Loss of vegetation exposes soil to erosion; water run-off may increase and cause flooding. Soil and rock may move downstream and damage property or fill reservoirs, putting community water supplies and endangered species at-risk.
The Emergency Stabilization-Burned Area Emergency Response program is a rapid assessment of burned watersheds by BAER teams to identify unacceptable post-fire threats and implement emergency treatments to reduce unacceptable risks to identified Values at Risk. BAER is a program for emergency stabilization work that involves time-critical activities to be completed before the first damaging rain event or first major storm.
The BAER team is made up of specialists from various disciplines such as hydrologists, soil scientists, biologists and botanists, among others.
BAER treatments cannot prevent all of the potential flooding or soil erosion impacts, especially after wildfires change the landscape. So it is important that the public is informed and prepared for potential increased run-off or flooding events.
One of the most effective BAER strategies is interagency coordination with local cooperators who help affected businesses, private homes and landowners prepare for rain storms. The Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Riverside County Office of Emergency Services work together and coordinate with other federal and local agencies, and counties that assist private landowners in preparing for potential increased run-off or flooding.
Federal assistance to private landowners is the primary responsibility of the NRCS through the Emergency Watershed Protection program.
BAER treatments, such as the installing erosion and runoff water control devices, temporary barriers to protect recovering areas, warning signs and drainage features for increased flow may be implemented. BAER work may also replace safety-related facilities, remove safety hazards, prevent permanent loss of habitat for threatened and endangered species, and prevent the spread of noxious weeds.