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Cleanup after fire may set cost mark

CONCONULLY, Wash. – Smoke still rises from smoldering stumps in north-central Washington, the result of a massive wildfire that roared through 274 square miles of state and federal land.

The Tripod fire wasn’t the largest blaze of 2006 – Montana’s Derby fire burned 297 square miles of forest and Nevada is cleaning up nearly 1 million acres, burned by several fires, in one region alone.

But the remote land scorched in Washington state includes hundreds of miles of roads and trails, river channels and wildlife habitat that must be protected from erosion after the blaze. The U.S. Forest Service is asking for $28 million over the next two years to complete what may be the most expensive rehabilitation project the agency has ever undertaken.

“The flames have died down, and the firefighters have gone home, but the work is just beginning,” said Doug Jenkins, Forest Service spokesman for the recovery effort.

The Tripod fire, two fires that joined after being sparked separately by lightning, burned 175,184 acres just south of the Canadian border, briefly threatening the hamlets of Conconully and Loomis tucked away in the thick Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests.

The forests, hard hit by a bark beetle outbreak, provided ready fuel for a wildfire. In areas where the fire burned most hot, all the ground cover or duff – small or downed trees and branches, bushes and shrubs – burned away. Standing trees are but scorched sticks, their root systems beyond repair. Soil has been seared to a fine, gray ash.

Twenty-three percent of the fire zone burned severely.

“By and large every tree is dead in the areas that are severely burned,” said Mel Bennett, a forest hydrologist assigned to the recovery team, which includes engineers, botanists, biologists and cultural resources specialists.

The recovery effort doesn’t try to replace what’s been damaged by the fire, but to reduce further harm to now-fragile land that is exposed to the elements.

The team works long hours, for weeks on end, to evaluate hazards and develop a recovery plan to submit. The expense for the Tripod fire: $28 million.

The Forest Service already received $14 million to begin the work this fall before heavy snow falls, and hopes the rest of the money will be approved next year to complete the project.

Work includes clearing downed trees and cutting hazard trees – not salvage operations that are generally conducted separately later – that have been weakened and could fall on 259 miles of road and 70 miles of trail inside the fire lines. Culverts must be rebuilt, and in some cases enlarged, to handle runoff from snow and rain.

Erosion poses the biggest risk, Bennett said, resulting in landslides and sediment loading in streams important to threatened and endangered fish.

Erosion also could increase by up to 400 percent stream flows in some drainages during peak rainfall and snowmelt, flooding downstream communities.

An estimated 270 truckloads of straw have been delivered to the Tripod fire alone, to be dropped by helicopter in 1-ton bales over the heaviest burn areas. The straw provides cover from rain and snow for scorched soil.

Less severely burned areas are to be fertilized to help damaged plants recover. Roughly 7,000 acres are to be seeded with sturdy grasses, and workers will clear noxious weeds that could choke out emerging plants.

Terry Lillybridge, a plant ecologist on the team, estimates a 50-50 chance for success.

“The success of seeding depends on what happens next spring,” he said. “You end up with a rainstorm that might not normally be a problem on a vegetated slope, become a problem. Maybe in a case where 80 percent of the rainfall might soak in, maybe 80 percent comes downstream instead.”

For Jenkins, Bennett and Lillybridge, the operation is the largest they can remember after many years with the Forest Service.

In the meantime, the fire continues to smolder. It won’t be contained until the area sees three days of rain equaling a half-inch, or 5 inches of snow.

 

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