Rob Taylor, a scientist with the Burned Area Emergency Response team assigned to the Lake Fire can’t stress it enough. “The danger of fire doesn’t end when the flame goes out and firefighters move to the next thing,” Taylor said. He led members of the media on a tour of the Lake Fire burned area in the San Gorgonio Wilderness July 5.
The Burned Area Emergency Response team, better know as BAER, is sent to wildfires within the U.S. National Forest system to assess damage and make recommendations for stabilization, recovery and restoration. The media viewed an area in the wilderness overlooking Poopout Hill, a popular hiking trail that connects to trails leading to the summit of San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in Southern California at nearly 12,000 feet.
Skeletal remains of numerous manzanita bushes dot the landscape now. Jeffrey pines stand a tragic vigil over the area, showing damage ranging from slightly singed to blackened shells. Many trees have fallen to the ground to become smouldering logs.
The soil is multicolored—black, brown, tan and white. In some places a sprig of green finds its way out of the darkened ground, its green a sign of life that hovers under the soil in some places.
Determining where the soil may still be viable and identifying trouble spots is the job of the BAER team. Soil scientist Eric Schroder explains.
“One of the first things we try to do is get a map together of soil burn severity,” Schroder said. The watershed near Frog Creek includes a range of burn conditions from unburned, to low, moderate and high.
Schroder said they expect to find soil erosion in several areas affected by the Lake Fire.
Because of a lack of vegetation, soil erosion creates problems in the area during major storm events and flooding. Debris could damage property, be a danger to people living in the area and could pollute the watershed. The impacts could be felt many miles downstream from, in this case, the Santa Ana River watershed into communities at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains and beyond. “Instead of having the water soaking in, you have more overland flow and it increases your flood risk,” said Chris Stewart, BAER hydrologist.
The BAER team collected data within the Lake Fire perimeter during the last week. Now the data is being analyzed for a report expected later this week. The report will help U.S. National Forest rangers, and San Bernardino National Forest rangers in particular, decide on short- and long-term recovery and restoration projects for the area. Recommendations usually contain some form of closure of the area to the public for months or even years, depending on the severity of the damage, Schroder said.
The potential for debris and flooding is the focus for the
One of the major concerns is the potential for debris fields to form as part of flooding due to major storm events. The area is prone to thunderstorms in the summer months, he said. “In 1999, Forest Falls was impacted by a big debris field, and that was when this area was fully forested,” Taylor said. “The nature of the landscape here, is that even in unburned areas, we historically have debris flow from storms.”
In 1999 Jenks Lake Road was taken out by such a debris flow.
Another focus is on threatened wildlife and plants. The Southwest Willow Flycatcher and critical habitat for the mountain yellow-legged frog is within the Lake Fire damage zone. “Various endangered plants exist on this fire scar,” Taylor said, “including one that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. Our botany group is focusing on that.”
Once the report is completed, the BAER team will take immediate action to implement emergency stabilization measures to reduce or manage unacceptable risks. Treatments must be implemented within the first year from the fire, but could require maintenance or repair up to three years. The team works with several other agencies, including the National Weather Service, Caltrans and local officials to keep the public informed and prepared for potential run-off events.
“This area hadn’t burned in 100 years,” Schroder said. “It will take decades for it to come back.”
For more information on the Lake Post-Fire BAER assessment, visit inciweb.gov/incident/4346/.