Little 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.
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.