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With fires (mostly) out, attention turns to safety

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | November 20, 2022 1:00 AM

BONNERS FERRY — Except for the Kootenai River Complex in northern Boundary County, all fires in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests have contained, controlled, or out.

However, that does not mean the end of fire activity nor crew work in the area of fires, IPNF officials said in a press release.

“After a fire, loss of vegetation can expose soil to erosion; water run-off may increase and cause flooding, soil and rock may move downstream and damage property or fill reservoirs, putting community water supplies and wildlife habitat at risk,” they said.

Priority is given to emergency stabilization efforts to prevent further damage to nearby property or National Forest lands. Although work cannot be performed on private land, private landowners can benefit greatly when neighboring public lands are treated by Burned Area Emergency Response program efforts, officials said.

“The stabilization work begins before the fire is out and may continue for up to a year,” Joshua Baker, public information officer, said. “In contrast, the long-term rehabilitation effort to repair damage caused by the fire starts after the fire is out and continues for several years. Rehabilitation focuses on the lands unlikely to recover naturally from wildland fire damage.”

BAER programs are designed to address emergency stabilization through its key goals of protecting life, property, and critical natural and cultural resources, Baker said in the press release. Assessment teams assess burned areas to determined what efforts are needed — and how to implement them in order to minimize threats to life and property resulting from the effects of a fire.

“The program stabilizes and prevents unacceptable degradation of natural and cultural resources if needed,” Baker said.

BAER assessments are required when wildfires exceed 500 acres or on smaller wildfires when potential threats to human life and safety, property, or critical natural or cultural resources exist.

Since it was sparked by lightning in mid-August, fires in the Kootenai River Complex have burned an estimated 25,401 acres as of late October. Completion of tasks needed to reach containment was reached Oct. 28, minimal fire activity remains with some flanking, backing, and creeping. Roughly nine fire personnel remain assigned to the fire

When compatible with land and resource management plans, project completed as part of a BAER assessment help substantially reduce risks within the first year following containment of a fire, officials said.

BAER assessments help ensure sufficient protection, that risk management objectives are met, and approved burned-area emergency stabilization measures take place before likely damages or losses occur. Measures typically take place within a year of a fire’s containment and are monitored for up to three years to ensure they are functioning as planned, officials said.

While the Blackburn, Columbus, and Diamond Watch fires qualified for BAER assessment, officials said the fires burned with overall low severity. As a result, few BAER critical values are present.

“After a rapid assessment using GIS and field verification by specialists, it was determined there was no emergency need for treatment based on overall low risk to critical values,” Baker said.

However, for the Kootenai River Complex, an initial BAER assessment has been completed by a team consisting of soil scientists, hydrologist, engineer, fisheries biologist, and a botanist.

“An emergency determination has been established in this assessment which justifies a series of treatments,” Baker said.

Treatments will include road closures, hazard signage, invasive species early detection rapid response treatments, storm proofing, and the construction of critical dips at high-risk stream crossings on Trout and Ball Creek roads.

“The Kootenai River was the only fire where the team thought a full BAER assessment was warranted,” Baker said. “The burn severity in the other fires, the fire behavior patterns, placement in the watershed, etc., did not result in post-fire conditions where we would expect high risk to critical values.”

Those planning to travel in the KRC area are reminded that potential hazards exist and that crews conducting repair work may still be in the area. They are advised to travel with care, and recreate responsibly, Baker said.

Information: national BAER program, bit.ly/3Ok69Vw; BAER assessments on IPNF fires, bit.ly/3EHmlfl

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