Rehab Begins On Willow Burn Area

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The Willow Fire not only threatened our communities, it had a major ecological impact on the area.

Besides doing mop-up work on the fire, the Arizona Central West Zone Type 2 Incident Management Team now on the scene is engaged in assessment and rehabilitation efforts.

"Once the fire goes away, people go, ‘Oh, it's over -- no impact,'" Fire Information Officer Dick Fleishman said. "Tell that to people in southern California where they get big landslides."

Landslides probably won't be an issue with the Willow Fire, but flooding, the destruction and erosion of soil, and the impact on wildlife are among the serious concerns that John Philbin's team is addressing.

There are two rehabilitation phases.

"First, the fire team is doing what's called fire suppression rehabilitation," Fleishman said. "Any kind of mess we made to try and stop the fire we have to fix so it doesn't run water and so it will regenerate as soon as possible."

That means draining dozer lines and putting barriers across them to keep water off.

"It's also spreading material across them in some spots to try and disguise them so people don't say, ‘Oh, a new road,'" Fleishman said.

Philbin's team is also rehabilitating hand lines and safety zones.

"We made 44 safety zones on this fire," Fleishman said.

But fire suppression rehab includes much more than the obvious scars left by firefighters.

"If we cut a fence to put a line in, we have to fix the fence," Fleishman said. "There might be some roadwork that needs to be done because we messed the road up. If we cut a bunch of stuff down to do a burnout, we're actually chipping it, because otherwise we'd just be leaving a big fire hazard."

The second rehabilitation phase is conducted by a separate Burned Area Emergency Response team. The BAER team works in conjunction with and is supported by Philbin's Type 2 team, but is funded separately.

"The fire did a whole lot of damage and it caused its own set of issues," Fleishman said. "The BAER team is now pretty far through with their assessments and then they're going to prescribe treatments."

The team uses satellite imagery and on-site inspections to assess burn intensities.

"They're looking for any kind of damage to the soil, because when you heat soil you can actually change its physical structure," Fleishman said.

While soil becomes biologically sterile when heated to 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, its physical structure actually changes when it reaches 400 to 500 degrees.

"Soil is generally a very porous medium, but the fire can actually change that and close those pore spaces on the surface," Fleishman said.

Flooding, of course, is also a major concern.

"Their main focus is on values at risk that would be downstream -- a drainage system that would drain into a community such as Deer Creek, Jake's Corner, Doll Baby Ranch -- so that's where they focus a lot of their treatments," Fleishman said. "They're also looking at Highway 87, because there are some steep slopes in that Slate Creek drainage area. We're going to have some flooding, no doubt about it, and they're looking at how to minimize it."

Potential treatments include clearing drainages and using cigar-shaped straw wattles to slow down water.

"They're also looking at implementing some early warning systems so if we do get flooding, people can get out," Fleishman said. Reseeding efforts also should begin by the end of the week, primarily by air.

Impact on wildlife

Meanwhile, Arizona Game and Fish is in the process of determining what impact the fire had on wildlife, according to Field Supervisor Craig McMullen. So far, the state agency believes the fire will do more to help wildlife than harm it.

"There may be some short-term negative effects to individual animals, but certainly in the long term, we expect a net benefit to many of the wildlife species," McMullen said.

The fire had the effect of returning the area to an earlier era.

"Generally speaking, when you've got a community that's been knocked back to a lower successional stage, there's a wider variety of food available, and oftentimes it's more nutritious than what's available in a climax community," McMullen said. "Most of that stuff hadn't burned in years -- that chaparral. It was old and decadent and it needed to burn."

Heavy monsoon rains, despite the flood danger they create, would be beneficial to wildlife. The combination of fire and water is ideal to germinate grasses.

Game and Fish officials also are hopeful the fire will have a positive impact on native fish populations in the area.

"There are a lot non-natives (like bass, catfish and red shiners) in there that prey on the natives, and there's a chance that the turbidity from the runoff will knock those back or eliminate those non-natives and give us an opportunity to repatriate a lot of those natives back into their historic ranges," McMullen said.

There probably weren't too many animals that perished in the fire, he surmised.

"The deer and elk and bears can get up and run out of the way of the fire, birds of course fly away, and small mammals like squirrels can either burrow under the ground, hide in their dens, or get in the center of a big mature tree to weather the fire."

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