When the firefight finally ends against the destructive Sand Fire that’s been raging since last July 22 — sending massive amounts of smoke and ash throughout the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valley — the work of restoration will begin.
It’s a process that features simple measures to allow nature to regenerate and prevent future flareups while at the same time avoid runoffs and more problems from rain.
Mudslides are a regular occurrence after fires due to the top soil being burned and erosion taking place with the first rains.
“We definitely have the potential for flash floods in areas deforested by the Sand Fire,” said Jay Nichols, public information officer for the Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team. “We’re going to have to do rehabilitation work.”
Nichols said a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team will assess the burned areas and how to mitigate the destruction left from days of intense heat, machinery and human activity on the hills surrounding Santa Clarita and the northeast San Fernando Valley.
The BAER Team is made up of a team of scientists and experts who conduct soil tests to determine where the most severe effects of the fire are . With that information, it will model water flows in order to identify the communities that are most at risk, and recommend measures to protect lives and property.
Possible safety measures include putting in temporary barriers to divert the flows.
But in most cases, only a portion of the burned area is actually treated. The main focus is on 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.
Rehabilitating an area affected by a wildfire begins as the incident is winding down, explained Erin McKenzie, public information officer for the USDA Forest Service.
First comes the “mop up” to make sure all of the heat along the fire lines is completely out, McKenzie said.
“You may have a stump, maybe a tree was burning and it fell, and it left a tree that is still smoldering and still generating a lot of heat. But [it also] might be something buried in ash. It might not be very visible,” he said.
“They can go through the area with a sort of fine-tooth comb and make sure to scrape it out so all the hot spots are truly cold.”
That effort goes from the fire line into the fire area. Sometimes it could go up to 100 feet depending on the terrain, just to make sure that containment line is a nice wide barrier, she added.
At the same time, McKenzie said, some crews are working on fire suppression while other firefighters and equipment focus largely on repairing aspects of the fire and any “scar over the landscape” left by the firefight.
Southern California might still be in a drought, but there is still rain, and in the areas scarred by wildfires that translates into mudflows.
Erosion is a major worry after a wildfire.
“The top soil layer and the roots that netted all together are gone. When the rain does come, you need something to hold it in place, so we create berms to slow the flow of the water,” McKenzie said.
She noted a lot of this is done with more heavy equipment but said, “it’s almost surprising how delicately they can repair” an area affected by a fire.
But “it’s impossible to tell” when an area ravaged by fire will be whole again, McKenzie said.
“A hillside that was largely grass with maybe some bushes, it can recover within a year or a few years,” McKenzie said. “But if you have heavily timbered area, those effects can be long lasting.”
The drought doesn’t help in this endeavor.
“Even the native vegetation that is pretty resilient can be stressed,” she said, making a fast recovery difficult.