Burn recovery: Once a Nevada wildfire gets extinguished, land restoration begins

15 February 2020

Published by https://m.lasvegassun.com

USA – The Nevada Division of Forestry has reported a wildfire in Nevada at least once a month for the past five years. After the fire is extinguished, the work to rehabilitate public land to support natural plant and wildlife can take years, if not decades.

A helicopter is used in the reseeding process in the wake of the Goshute Cave Fire.

Take the 30,000 acres of land surrounding Goshute Creek, which was ravaged by the lighting-ignited Goshute Cave Fire in 2018. The creek, some 55 miles north of Ely, is home to the Bonneville cutthroat trout, a state protected game fish. The area is also a habitat for big-game species like mule deer and elk.

The Bureau of Land Management partnered with the Nevada Department of Wildlife to rehabilitate the fish and wildlife habitat, and to restore watershed health to the damaged lands.

“It isn’t just wildland firefighters on the ground after a fire; we have a group specially assigned for rehabilitation,” says Chris McVicars, a natural resource specialist and fire rehab program manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Ely District. “We have these guys hit the ground running pretty quick.”

McVicars begins formulating a rehabilitation plan before a fire is contained, assessing the damage and coordinating with specialists to be as proactive as possible. “If I know, for example, that a fire burned a winter habitat, I will need a wildlife biologist,” he says. “If I think soil loss or erosion is a problem, I’ll need to involve a hydrologist. If I need a permit, I’ll need a rangeland management specialist.”

The BLM uses three-stage Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation protocols to restore lands to a pre-fire state, and to reduce erosion and fuels to prevent future fires. The first stage, Emergency Stabilization, occurs within the first year a fire occurs and is meant to stabilize and prevent further land degradation or threats to surrounding human life.

“We are a rural district, so threats to surrounding neighborhoods don’t occur as often here,” McVicars says. “But let’s say a fire burns a large basin on a steep hill site, and there’s a housing development. Once the fire burns and all the topsoil and vegetation has been removed, as soon as there’s rain and snow melt, the area is susceptible to erosion and debris flows, and that can affect human life.”

One significant danger following the Goshute fire: the many thick fir trees that had burned and had a high probability of falling on the roadway. They had to be removed.

After that, agencies began the process of reseeding areas most damaged by the fire. In the case of Goshute, McVicars says, BLM and the wildlife department partnered to aerially seed more than 15,300 acres of BLM-administered land blackened by the fire. Aerial seeding is a restoration technique that involves sowing seeds from a drone, plane or helicopter.

“After these fires, the big push for the BLM and Department of Wildlife is to re-establish the vegetation,” says Moira Kolada, a staff biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “That’s what provides the wildlife their habitat. Based on the area, we typically work with the BLM on various seed mixes to provide the vegetation we want to see back there.”

For Goshute, agencies aerially administered more than 138,000 pounds of grass, forb and brush seeds. Multiple factors—including soil type, elevation, slope, annual precipitation and existing vegetation—determine what is contained in the seed mixes, McVicars says. Agencies also cleared dead trees and installed straw wattle on hills and mountain sides to catch soils and reduce erosion.

Last spring, BLM staff—alongside with Sierra Club volunteers—began the process of restoring the Goshute Creek Campground. Together, they constructed 250 feet of fencing between the campground and creek. They also installed three new picnic tables and fire rings and planted bitterbrush seed along the creek. The Sierra Club has been working with the BLM Ely District on similar projects over the past 15 years.

Late last year, BLM and NDOW agencies transplanted willow cuttings from a nearby state park along the creek. The willows will help stabilize the stream bank and improve water quality, according to Kolada. “Willows are a relatively fast-growing species in Nevada, unlike sage brush,” she says. “They establish themselves quickly and speed up root stabilization.”

Initial monitoring of the lands indicates the burn area has recovered well so far, McVicars says. Still, it has a long way to go before it will return to pre-fire conditions. Full recovery of the land typically takes 15-20 years.

“The long-term goal is for that burned area to be a productive healthy site,” McVicars says. “I want it to be a functioning ecosystem.”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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