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