Carlton Made an Impact on State Lands in DNR’s Northeast Region

Carlton Complex Fire destructionLittle did I know that on July 14 our world in the DNR Northeast Region would be turned upside down. By the time the Carlton Complex Fire was finished, the magnitude of its force was hard to comprehend. Many questions would need to be asked and answered, assessments of damage determined, and a plan developed for recovery.Then, FEMA showed up. The President’s approval of public assistance was welcomed but also brought additional layers of work as we chartered unfamiliar territory for Northeast Region staff.

Carlton burned more than 48,000 acres of DNR-managed state trust lands. By far, most of these acres were grazing lands. Collectively, 17 preference permits within 5 permit ranges; 29 grazing leases; and 5 agriculture leases were impacted. More than 17,000 acres of forestland, 2 natural area preserves, and a lookout tower were burned or damaged as well. The sheer scale of damage to these and the trust assets associated with them was incomprehensible and consequently complicated the assessment in the direction of recovery.

Carlton Complex Fire-fencing destroyed

Some of the 77 miles of fencing on DNR state trust land destroyed in the Carlton Complex Fire in July 2014

A small army of land managers was dispatched to Carlton even before the flames had subsided to begin the difficult task of inventorying the damage. Many hours were spent on this effort. Later, many more hours were consumed compiling and assessing the damage.  More questions than answers permeated throughout the process. Calculating the damage to the level of precision required to obtain FEMA assistance brought additional challenges. Attention to detail at every level of the assessment was necessary to insure that the damaged assets would be repaired. This effort identified more than 77 miles of damaged range fencing. In addition, several stock water tanks and their associated watering systems were damaged.

Aside from an inventory of infrastructure damage, there was the assessment of the range condition to complete as well. Re-establishing monitoring plots and setting up new ones would be required so the range condition could be monitored over the years to follow. New baselines were developed for comparison of forage recovery and an overall health assessment of the plant communities. Follow-up visits each year will determine when the range can be grazed sustainably again. Initial estimates range from two seed set periods to five years rest may be necessary before cattle can occupy the pastures or leases again.

Much of the inventory, assessing, and planning is complete. The next phase will be the actual recovery effort that is expected to take two years – just in time for pastures that successfully develop forage quickly. A combination of contracting Washington Conservation Corps crews, and possibly correctional camps crews, is expected to be deployed to complete the repairs. Some of this work will include complete replacement of older fences made primarily with wood posts. Everything has been prioritized and charted on workflow charts. Since FEMA is a reimbursement program, the challenge will be to fund the work and the supplies that will be needed.

My hat is off to everyone who participated in this process for the professionalism and dedication they exhibited throughout the process, despite the frustrating challenges. Without their commitment, we would not be as far along as we are today.

By Bob McKellar, Northeast Region Assistant Region Manager, State Lands.

Upcoming Farm Program Deadlines

Dryland agriculture lessees should be aware of several approaching deadlines for participation in federal farm programs. See the Farm Service Agency (FSA) website for more information on these programs.

January 30, 2015, is the deadline for the no-penalty early termination of conservation reserve programs (CRPs) where landowners and operators want to return CRP ground to dryland crop production. If you are interested in returning CRP to sustainable crop production, please contact your land manager well in advance of the deadline, so DNR staff have time to evaluate the proposal.

February 27, 2015, is the deadline for updating your yields and base acre reallocations with FSA. There has been some confusion about Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR’s) intentions regarding the new commodity/safety net programs and the Base Reallocation and Yield Update Decision for ARC and PLC Programs (form CCC-858).

To clear up the confusion, DNR expects that our lessees/operators will:

  1. Update base reallocations and commodity yields on the CCC-858 form to whatever is most beneficial to the operator. FSA will provide the forms with updates to DNR for signature, and DNR will return them to FSA offices via email. For newer operators who do not have access to yield records for years 2008 to 2012, DNR can provide those records to the operator.
  2. Elect to the safety net program in the best interest of the operator. Election must be completed by March 31, 2015.
  3. Enroll in the safety net program in the best interest of the operator. Enrollment deadlines have not yet been set by FSA.

DNR has limited staff time allocated to management of federal farm programs, so we urge our lessees to not wait until just before a deadline to provide base acre and yield updates, and elect and enroll in the safety net programs.

The BAER Team Experience after the Carlton Complex Fire

rill erosion

On a slope with rill erosion, the author poses with soil shovel in hand ready to work in the dirt.

Following the devastating Carlton Complex Fire in the summer of 2014, I was surprised and then very honored to be asked to participate in the first-ever multi-jurisdiction assessment team with the United States Forest Service (USFS) Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team.

Since I was born and raised in Okanogan County it meant a lot to me to be part of the team assessing the impacts of the fire. I was amazed by the magnitude of devastation and feel empathy for folks who suffered losses. I reflected on my heritage as I walked over the scorched lands on the same ground where my great-grandfather once traveled as a stagecoach driver from Pateros through Carlton onto Twisp and Winthrop.

The formation of the multi-jurisdiction assessment team is the result of a request by the Okanogan Conservation District to Governor Inslee. The team was assigned to conduct a rapid assessment of the fire area to determine whether the after-effects of the fire will pose a threat to life or property or will cause unacceptable degradation of natural or cultural resources.

After President Obama signed the Disaster Declaration on August 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began coordinating with the Okanogan Conservation District and USFS to staff this team to complete an assessment on public and private lands.

The BAER team came together in a short amount of time and members included specialists in soils, hydrology and weather, engineering, fisheries, wildlife, range, cultural resources and GIS. The team represented national, state, local agencies and organizations from Washington state and other parts of the west.

sever head cut caused by erosion

The author stands on a Forest Service road looking at a severe head cut caused by erosion in the wake of the Carlton Complex Fire.

The team’s task was to collect and compile data and provide recommendations for emergency stabilization and long-term restoration to minimize impacts on private property and lands managed by Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.

This two-week assignment consisted of long and tiring days, a high learning curve, great networking with professional experts, and an opportunity to employ adaptable management. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to experience the power and yet the forgiveness of nature.

The first day consisted of meeting team members, outlining our goals for threats and hazards, emergency rehabilitation treatments, and safety protocols. The next five days were set in the field performing transects and collecting data and validating the intensity of the fire to produce a final burn soil severity map. Actually getting to work in the dirt! The following week consisted of compiling and organizing the information for writing the BAER report. At the time it seemed daunting and an almost overwhelming task under a deadline.

quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove

A quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove regenerates following rainfall. Photo: Bill Oaks/DNR

Burned Area Reflectance Classification (BARC) and aerial reconnaissance data were combined to develop a preliminary “High”, “Moderate”, and “Low” fire intensity map for the Carlton Complex Fire. BARC imagery depicts the “intensity” or above-ground fire effects for making interpretations of fire impacts on pre-fire vegetation, soil and hydrologic conditions.

I understand now and have been enlightened that there is a difference between fire intensity and severity, learning that fire intensity and soil burn severity are often incorrectly used synonymously.

“Fire intensity relates to the above-ground fire effects generally identified through visual observations of changes in the overstory vegetation and ground fuels (type, amount, arrangement, and moisture content). Soil burn severity is the effect of fire at and below the ground surface, specifically how the fire changes the physical and chemical composition of the soils. While fire intensity is not primarily a reflection of wildfire effects on soils, observed changes from pre- to post-fire vegetation are used as indicators to estimate soil burn severity as a function of watershed response. Fire severity that detrimentally impacts soil conditions leads to further degradation of soil productivity and soil-hydrologic function

Source: Sawtooth National Forest, BAER, Cave Canyon Fire, Soil Resource Assessment, August 26, 2012)

With the loss of both overhead canopy and ground cover, severely burned soils lose their ability to protect the surface and absorb precipitation properly.

 bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata),

Skeletons of bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), an important plant for wildlife and for post-wildfire restoration throughout the West. Photo Bill Oakes/DNR

The results of the assessment helped to identify the severity of the fire and potential post-fire effects to critical values such as human life and safety, property (roads, buildings, municipal, domestic and agricultural water systems, etc.), degradation of natural resources (soil productivity and hydrologic function), habitat for federally listed species, cultural and heritage resources within or in close proximity to burned lands. Hazards that put values at risk include hillslope erosion, flooding, debris flows, and establishment of invasive or noxious plant species. One important outcome was to prioritize locations for aerial seeding treatment.

Grasses growing with some Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) regeneration. Photo: Bob Oakes/DNR

Grasses growing with some bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) regeneration. Photo: Bill Oakes/DNR

It is very difficult to capture the entire process in this article of creating the BAER report and there is much more to explain. It is a complex and interrelated progression that pulled together efficiently and effectively to produce a high quality product. Hopefully, we can take this experience and turn it into positive outcome and provide vision for the future; by having a team in place ready to hit-the-ground-running if anything closely resembles this unfortunate natural disaster occurs again.

I am grateful for this unique opportunity and learned a lot from associated colleagues of the project and ensuing comradery. Their dedication, cooperation and professionalism were inspiring and I am proud to have participated in this first ever inter-agency BAER team. Hopefully, I was able to contribute in small way something positive to the unfortunate people involved in this tragedy, DNR, and the environment.

I fought fires early in my career with both DNR and the USFS but the Carlton Complex was unlike anything I had ever seen. Although some areas looked like the proverbial “bomb struck it”, being able to actually get out in the “dirt” was an exciting adventure. To sum up my interesting experience, it reaffirmed my belief that just like the laws of conservation of energy and matter, the law of life can change form but cannot be extinguished!

Wishing everyone a healthy, productive and prosperous year to come. Happy trails,

Bill Oakes, Agricultural Stewardship, Monitoring and Compliance Specialist, DNR Product Sales & Leasing Division

DNR wells and water level monitoring

Air line measurement at DNR well.

Air line measurement at DNR well. Photo: DNR

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) relies on more than 80 wells for water supply to irrigate crops under agriculture leases. On most leases with existing well(s), the well(s) provide the primary source of water for irrigation under the lease. In other cases, the well(s) serves as a backup supply to a surface water source. In either case, the wells and associated water rights are valuable assets to the State. As stewards of these water rights and wells, DNR is responsible for effectively managing them to produce revenue for public schools and other state trust land beneficiaries.

DNR water-level monitoring data provide important information about the aquifers the department use for irrigation water. Identifying and tracking the presence and magnitude of water-level trends, including declines, can help us anticipate well and pump issues. The monitoring information helps us assess the lifespan of an existing well or the need for future well repairs or maintenance. The monitoring data also are critical to DNR’s long-term planning and decision-making for future water supplies on irrigated agriculture leases.

DNR has regularly measured water levels in about half of its wells, with data sets in many cases extending back to the time that the wells were drilled. DNR typically measures water levels in the early spring in order to track trends in water levels prior to irrigation season pumping. Currently, DNR is expanding its monitoring network to track water level trends at wells completed in the different aquifers on which the department relies for irrigation.

Many DNR wells are relatively deep wells into the Columbia River basalts. In most cases, DNR uses air line measurements to track water levels in these wells. This requires the installation and maintenance of air lines at each DNR well, regardless of whether they are part of the current annual water level monitoring network or are only measured periodically. An important part of the monitoring effort is to work closely with lessees to ensure that functional air lines with known depth settings are put in place when pump work is done, and when pumps are pulled.

DNR is working to broaden its monitoring network and track the data spatially in a geographic information system (GIS) so that well information can be easily accessed and used. In addition, DNR looks to other publicly available water level data for wells in the vicinity of state trust lands. In this way, we can continue to plan for the future on our agriculture leases.

By Ingrid Ekstrom, Hydrologist, DNR Product Sales & Leasing Division