RICHLAND, Wash. – Fire bosses say a blaze in central Washington is 90 percent contained. That’s while large fires continue to burn in Idaho and California. Getting these wildfires under control marks the beginning of a new problem: soil erosion.
Extreme heat from wildfires destroys trees and groundcover. That means plants no longer keep soil from sliding down hillsides and into streams.
Residents near central Washington’s Taylor Bridge Wildfire could see more sediment on roads and in streams. They also might notice wind kicking up extra dust.
People are starting to confront problems soil erosion could cause in the area, says Anna Lael, Kittitas County Conservation District manager.
“Undoubtedly soil erosion is a big concern, here, in the areas that burned. The degree to which it’s a concern, we don’t know yet until we’re able to go in and do some assessments,” Lael says.
Right now, Lael says, Kittitas County is working to come up with a plan to prevent soil erosion.
Landscape plays a big role in how much soil erodes. Steep slopes and severely burned areas are more likely to face threats.
Bill Elliot studies soil erosion and wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service. He says sandy soils erode the most after a fire. The soil in Kittitas County is covered in volcanic ash. Elliot says that means fewer problems.
“They’re gonna see elevated amounts of runoff for a couple of years, two or three years, until the vegetation establishes,” Elliot says.
Extra runoff can make streams flood more easily. Elliot says the runoff could also cause problems for salmon.
Large wildfires are also burning in Idaho. Fire officials say soil erosion is often a big problem in the state. That’s because Idaho already has naturally shallow soil with steep slopes.
After a fire is contained, the next step is to correct erosion that may have been caused by firefighting efforts, says Robert Burnside, incident commander trainee at Idaho’s Springs Fire. The Springs fire burned 6,150 acres west of Garden Valley, Idaho.
Crews repair hand and dozer lines firefighters used to contain the blaze. They also create areas to collect sediment as it runs down hillsides, Burnside says. A Burned Area Emergency Response team will then assess the land for further damage.
There are several ways to prevent erosion after a wildfire:
Reseed grass in areas that have been severely burned.
Cover the soil with straw or shredded wood.
Control weed growth so that they don’t take over native plants.
Use logs, plastic tubes, slit fences and straw bales to block runoff from entering streams.
However, the U.S. Forest Service’s Bill Elliot says weather in the Pacific Northwest is favorable for fire recovery: fewer large downpours and more drizzly days.
“Pray for drizzles, not for storms. That kind of a thing. That’s what really helps these sites recover. The slow rains soak up the soils. You get very little runoff so it doesn’t mess up your creek systems, and so on.”
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