BAER Teams Check Extent of Damage After Wild-land Fires

Jul 27, 2012

HOST: The fire season came early to Wyoming this year. Usually, Wyoming doesn’t see its biggest fires until late July but already there have been 10 fires that have burned over 265-thousand acres of land. Wet weather and the efforts of thousands of firefighters have contained the larger blazes …So what happens after a fire? Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.

Irina Zhorov: When the firefighters leave, the BAER team gets to work…

Larry Sandoval: It’s B-A-E-R, and it stand for Burned Area Emergency Response…

Zhorov: That’s Forest Service spokesman Larry Sandoval, who used to participate on BAER teams as a soil scientist.

A BAER team consists of a group of scientists that could include a hydrologist, archaeologist, botanist, rangeland management specialist, and a wildlife biologist. They work together to figure out how much havoc a fire wreaked. 

The team looks at whether people or property are in danger from mudslides, erosion or flash floods. They also look to see if archaeological sites are exposed, if the soil is sterilized by the heat, or if invasive species threaten to take over the cleared landscape. 

Sandoval: And then be able to take immediate actions, as warranted to manage unacceptable risks to those resources.

Zhorov: At the Squirrel Creek fire west of Laramie, the smell of burn is still fresh but the BAER team has already completed its analysis of the charred landscape…they’re required to finish within seven days of a fire’s containment. All around the land is black, the inky remnants of vegetation at times creeping up to the road and lucky, untouched houses. Bare trees stick out like toothpicks on the ridge to the north. Sandoval gets down on his knees with a shovel to show what the soil scientists look for…

Sandoval: So you'd really first of all get down below to that initial duff and organic layer, getting into the mineral soil…

Zhorov: He picks up a clump of soil, squeezes some water droplets on to the dirt and watches the water get absorbed…He’s checking to see if the heat has made the soil water repellant.

Sandoval: If you get a really severe burn area where that true water repellency, that hydrophobicity has been created by the burn, it'll just stay beaded up like water on a waxed car.

Zhorov: Sandoval then scoops some soil near the bony remains of a bush, from a patch of ground covered in white ash – where the fire burned hotter and longer. The droplets sit on the surface this time. This is important because if water is not absorbed by soil on a large scale, it can’t support vegetation and can cause floods.  

Sandoval: The soil scientist and hydrologist go across the landscape and you kind of test that theory, in terms of whether or not it burned hot enough or severe enough to cause a problem.

Zhorov: And the botanist and rangeland specialist will look at the potential for the spread of invasive species of plants…

Sandoval: Through that process they would be assessing, ok what's the potential for spread with those species, what sorts of treatments can we use to implement out here to mitigate that spread?

Zhorov: Sometimes the recommendation is as simple as monitoring the area. However, if a fire burned hotter or more severely, the BAER team can prescribe more proactive responses…

Sandoval: Those are situations where the BAER team would get in and assess ok, are there opportunities here to do some things with the soil, to break up that water repellant layer, add some organic content to kind of rebuild the soil, put some seed in there to get things on their way to getting reestablished and so that's part of the process as well...  

Zhorov: At the Squirrel Creek fire, the BAER team found that burn wasn’t so bad and the only thing foresters have to worry about is invasive species. They recommended spraying herbicides and planting some native species to outcompete the undesirable plants.

But already, not two weeks after containment, little green blades of grass poke through the black ground left by the Squirrel Creek fire.

Zhorov: So is this kind of a best case scenario for recovery?

Sandoval: I would say so, I think what've I've seen and what I've heard is that not only this but some of the other fires we've had things look pretty favorable as far as fires go.

Zhorov: Still, there’s the rest of the fire season to worry about and what the BAER teams might find when they’re called to inspect future blazes.