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Burned up: Special team assesses fires’ aftermath

Even while fires were still burning this fall, experts began shifting their attention to the aftermath of the worst fire season in Alaska history, reports Ed Bovy of the Bureau of Land Management Alaska State Office. "Now what?" was on the minds of Alaskans and land managers alike. Would villagers now have to face the specter of reduced wildlife populations available for subsistence harvest? What about potential mudslides, insect outbreaks, unsafe bridges, and even invasive weeds?

In response, land managers and resource specialists from state, federal and Alaska Native organizations joined together to participate in a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team. The team hit the ground hard in September to determine what could and should be done. Bottom line statistics were sobering: more than 6.7 million acres burned from 736 fires. Direct suppression costs exceed $100 million and are climbing as the bills are still being totaled.
Resource specialists on the team got on the ground even as an early snowfall was under way. Satellite imagery was also used to map the extent of the fires. In all the team was able to evaluate 4.8 million acres in three weeks, leaving about 1.6 million more to be studied next spring.

The team conducted its assessment in coordination with local, state and federal agencies, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and other organizations. In addition, public meetings were held in eight villages most affected by the fires. The team is making recommendations in three categories: emergency stabilization, resource rehabilitation, and “nonspecific” recommendations needing special funding.

A resource-by-resource evaluation shows there are some daunting tasks ahead. But some findings were a bit surprising and revealed hope for the future. Less than 5 percent of the land assessed was classified as severely burned and about 22 percent was moderately burned. The balance, about 75 percent, was classified as low, very low, unburned, water, or unknown.

“The whole idea is to rehabilitate those lands unlikely to recover naturally. We want to restore and establish healthy ecosystems in the burned area,” said team leader Erv Gasser.

Emergency stabilization objectives are to:

- locate and stabilize severely burned conditions that pose a direct threat to human life, property, or critically important cultural and natural resources
- recommend post-fire emergency stabilization actions that prevent irreversible loss of natural and cultural resources
- conduct immediate post-burn reconnaissance for fire suppression-related impacts to threatened and endangered species and cultural sites
- document relative effectiveness of the stabilization treatments and determine whether additional treatments are necessary.

“About $4.6 million of federal funding has been planned to cover projects for the next three years. Approximately $1.8 million will be available this fiscal year,” said Dave Howell, BLM’s acting Branch Chief for Resources and Planning. There are conditions. Emergency stabilization treatments must be installed within one year and monitoring and maintenance can continue for an additional two years. Funds are not directly approved for use on State or private lands.
This May, the team will evaluate the remaining acres that were not surveyed in the fall. It will also seek additional comments from state and federal agencies, Native corporations and from the public at meetings to be held throughout the state.

BLM expects to name a project implementation leader and assemble a separate, smaller core team of resource specialists in the spring to award and monitor contracts for those projects selected for funding.

Preliminary team findings:
Interior spruce forests are characterized by shallow root systems and thin soils. Burned trees can remain standing after a fire only to fall later as wind and erosion takes a toll. Even green trees can be affected and become a hazard. While the obvious trees blocking access routes are cleared quickly, winds can unexpectedly topple seemingly healthy trees in exposed areas.

Some trees killed by the fires can be salvaged, particularly white spruce and hardwoods. Most of these trees are on state-managed lands. Harvest must occur in the first season following the fire to get any timber suitable for dimensional lumber and house logs; after that, sap rot and insects diminish the value of the trees. Some salvage operations would likely be done in winter when the ground is frozen to minimize damage to permafrost. Insects such as bark beetles will increase in downed timber unless it is removed.

A major impact on subsistence is the displacement of caribou herds. Some herds will undoubtedly have to relocate until browse returns, forcing villagers to travel farther to hunt them. Both harvest levels and harvest areas will change in some locations. Access routes are blocked in areas and will need to be cleared of snags and other hazards. Winter caribou habitat could change for decades in areas where lichens were totally destroyed; this key, slow-growing but highly-flammable species could take 50 years or more to return to productive caribou habitat.

Some people are also concerned that erosion could affect salmon habitat in important tributary streams of the Yukon River; any reduced commercial or subsistence harvest could affect villages for a number of years.

Soil and Water
Loss of tree cover could affect sediment loads in streams and then affect highways, particularly if culverts are clogged with debris, impounding water. Debris such as large trees can wrap around bridge abutments, stressing the structure, or actually block the entire highway if there is a landslide.

Cultural resources
The support structures of the water pipe at the historic Davidson Ditch on the Steese Highway were partially burned and possibly weakened. More than 100 historic and prehistoric sites are known to exist in burned areas, some of which are now exposed to erosion.

More than 150 miles of primarily winter trails will need to have obstructions removed.

Noxious and invasive plant species often colonize disturbed soils, particularly along dozer line and roads. These will need to be controlled.

Small mammals such as voles benefit and flourish in early seral (vegetation) stages; predators such as hawks, owls, fox and marten will follow. Moose generally benefit from fires because the plants, shrubs and saplings on which moose feed increase following the fire. In “low burn” areas, willows, aspen and birch quickly grow new shoots.

--Edward Bovy, public affairs specialist, BLM Alaska State Office

A version of this story was originally published as Aftershocks in the BLM Alaska Frontiers newsletter, Winter 2004-5 (available online in pdf form at at; follow the links). Reprinted with Permission.

[Read more at BLM Alaska Frontiers]

BLM Alaska Frontiers | Posted 01.11.05 at 11:55 pm

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