Burned Area Emergency Response team arrives to assess Eagle Creek Fire damage

Burned trees near Eagle Creek on Toothrock Mountain. (Photo: Chris Liedle, KATU Reporter)

A special team of about four dozen specialists arrived in Hood River Monday to study damage caused by the Eagle Creek Fire and develop and recommend short- and long-term restoration plans.

Comprised of approximately 50 hydrologists, biologists, soil scientists, engineers and archaeologists, the Burned Area Emergency Response team, or BAER (pronounced bear), often gets to work before the fire is fully contained.

Severely burned areas, very steep slopes, places where water runoff will be excessive, fragile slopes above homes, businesses, municipal water supplies, and other valuable facilities are focal points, with slope stabilization the highest priority.

"They're here with a goal toward basically addressing and coming up with methods to treat any negative impacts," Forest Service spokesperson Rachel Pawlitz said. "A lot of future-looking decisions can start ... once we understand what the overall impact is."

Pawlitz says the BAER team will use satellite imagery and advanced technology to map the Gorge.

Scientists will assess how soil properties changed after the fire. Binding agents that keep the soil together typically burn during a fire and can increase the risk of landslides.

Pawlitz says the team will develop a Burn Severity Map. This map shows where a fire burns with the most intensity and what areas are most impacted.

A BAER team created a similar map two years ago at the Canyon Creek Fire (page 5) in Central Oregon.

Using the map, BAER can prioritize projects and recommend a variety of emergency stabilization techniques.

Reseeding of ground cover with quick-growing or native species, mulching with straw or chipped wood, construction of straw, rock or log dams in small tributaries, and placement of logs to catch sediment on hill slopes are the primary stabilization techniques used.

The team also assesses the need to modify road and trail drainage mechanisms by installing debris traps, modifying or removing culverts to allow drainage to flow freely, adding additional drainage dips and constructing emergency spillways to keep roads and bridges from washing out during floods.

Some restoration projects are fairly simple and affordable, while infrastructure repairs, such as bridge replacement can cost around $100,000. But, with nearly 50,000 acres burned, the Forest Service estimates that’s just a fraction of the cost of repairs needed in the Gorge.

While BAER begins its work, suppression repair is already underway.

Resource Adviser Todd Reinwald says approximately 300 miles of containment lines built by hand crews and machines in forested areas and along roads need to be restored.

"It's important for us to return these areas back at least to a pre-event condition as much as we can, so that those impacts are not long lingering on the landscape," said Reinwald. "We just try to make them a little more natural setting to make it look like the forest floor."

The majority of work is done by firefighters and excavators, which includes removing berms, mulching trees, spreading duff that was removed, and installing natural, anti-erosion bars.

Like BAER, this work begins before the fire is fully contained.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge is waiting for these assessments to see how its volunteers can help.

It knows people are eager to grab a shovel and dig in, but certain things need to be done before that can happen.

“We need to assess what the environmental impacts are of the fire and what the appropriate science-based response is based on input from experts,” said Michael Lang, conservation director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

The BAER team’s assessment should help the Forest Service determine the cost.

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