Special Team Leads Forest Rehabilitation Effort

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Even before the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires were contained, rehabilitation work was under way.

"If they weren't doing mop-up, if they weren't immediately on the line, they were to the back starting to rehab the suppression areas where handlines, dozer lines and other soil disturbances were made to stop the forward progress of the fire," said Jack Babb, Payson Fire Department fire marshal and part-time public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. "They were putting in seed, putting in water bars (to control erosion), putting straw wattles in, or covering the area with existing duff (accumulated layers of vegetation) that was moved out of the way."

Besides controlling erosion, Forest Service officials move quickly so food habitats for wildlife can be restored.

"They need to reseed the area in a way that's beneficial to the habitat as well as for erosion control," Babb said. What they don't want to do is replicate the overgrown conditions that fueled the fire in the first place.

"They're regrowing with native species of plants or seed," Babb said. "They're getting out there and they're replacing what was destroyed, but they're not putting in trees every two or three feet apart."

Officials believe it will take from 30 to 50 years before the forest returns to pre-fire conditions.

Some members of the Humphrey's Type I Incident Management Team began the rehab process, but the bulk of the chore fell to the Type 3 team now working the fire and to a special Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation or BAER (pronounced "bear") Team at work on the Mogollon Rim. Assembled before the fire was contained, team members represent both the Coconino and Tonto national forests.

The BAER Team's primary function is to determine if emergency conditions exist with regard to possible flood threats, water quality, soil productivity, safety hazards, or a danger to any threatened and endangered species.

"The potential flood threat concerns values at risk from downstream flooding," Babb said. "Those include homes, private properties, access roads, trails, natural resources and archeological sites."

Safety hazards within the fire's perimeter include trees that are partially burned or leaning dangerously over a trail, and rocks and boulders that could roll due to vegetation that has been burned away.

Determining water quality is important for two reasons drinking water and fish species.

"The water quality could be affected by the fire directly with ash and debris, as well as indirectly due to the effects of erosion and soils flowing into rivers and streams," Babb said.

Washington Spring, Mail Spring and the East Verde River are among the water resources that will be evaluated by the BAER Team assigned to the Pack Rat Fire.

Because new growth is essential to replace what the fire has destroyed, soil productivity is also a major issue. Of special concern is hydrophobic or water-repellent soil.

"Soil will sometimes lose its ability to allow water to soak in, thereby leaving seeds unwatered and the chance for new growth reduced," he said.

Threatened, endangered and sensitive species will also be evaluated by the BAER Team. The Pack Rat Fire occurred in an area known to provide habitat to peregrine falcons, a sensitive species. The Mexican spotted owl, an endangered species, also makes the Rim country part of its habitat.

The BAER Team will also map the severity of the fire using grades of low, moderate and high. Its findings will be produced in a report due in the next few days detailing the treatment necessary to help the affected area recover quickly.

In Overgaard, a group of high school students adopted an area of the forest to rehab, and Boy Scouts sometimes also get involved in rehab. In fact, six Boy Scouts working on their Eagle requirements are assisting with the rehab effort in the Pinedale area.

"Rehabbing is essential after a fire, anything from as small as the Five Mile which was 376 acres, up to the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which was hundreds of thousands of acres," Babb said. "The affected areas need to heal and the rehab helps put the Band-Aid on the wound so it can heal faster."

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