When torrential winter storms drench the 191,000-plus acres scorched by the Chetco Bar Fire, they will likely produce higher-than-average flooding, and debris flows and landslides in drainage areas along the Chetco, Pistol and Winchuck rivers, officials said Thursday.
The anticipated increase in water turbidity could affect the quality of Brookings’ and Harbor’s drinking water, and the additional debris and silt could prompt closures to river bars and choke the Chetco River channel and boat basins at the Port of Brookings Harbor.
“There’s a good chance that there’s going to be more water, it’s going to be moving quicker and with more debris,” said John Chatel, leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response Team (BAER). “People need to be aware of the risks and not go out when there’s a larger rain event and the river is high.”
The BAER team recommendations, made public Thursday, include removing hazardous trees, repairing or installing drainage systems on downward-sloping roads, and temporarily restricting access to three or four river bars on the Cheto River.
“Our objective was to identify imminent threats to human life, property and natural resources — and what can we do to reduce these things,” Chatel said.
The team, consisting of about a dozen resource specialists, including hydrologists, geologists and experts on recreation in the forest, have spent the last few weeks scouring the area burned by the fire, which, as of Friday, was 97 percent contained.
Their mission was to determine the extent of the fire damage to the soil, plants and wildlife and cultural resources — and make recommendations on how to manage the impacted areas.
With the start of the rain season imminent, the team members held a public meeting at the Chetco Community Public Library Thursday to release results of their work and announce their recommendations.
When asked how much more water than usual will flow down the rivers this winter, BAER hydrologist Mark Dallon said, “Our models show there could be a 30 percent increase in peak flows at the height of major storms.”
Officials believe that Brookings and Harbor’s fresh water intakes on the Chetco River will be able to handle the increased turbidity because the intakes draw from an aquifer under the river bed, which naturally filters the water.
Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman said the city will monitor water quality throughout the winter and, if necessary, use the water treatment plant to maintain water quality.
However, officials said the intake structures along the banks of the Chetco River will be vulnerable to increased water flow and debris.
Extra debris and silt could also clog the channel at the mouth, Chatel said.
“That could be a problem for several years,” he said.
He has notified the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers about the potential danger. He said it would be up to that agency and officials at the Port of Brookings Harbor to address the likely problems of debris and silt in the channel and boat basins.
River bar closures
The recommendation to close access to several Chetco River bars concerned some local fishing guides.
Guide Harvey Young asked officials to consider keeping access available, at least to professional guides, through the fall and winter.
“We need access to those area to keep our guide service business viable,” Young said.
He explained that guides such as himself have permits, insurance and are “responsible river users.”
After the meeting, guide Andy Martin sent a letter to Matt Timchak, a forester and siviculturist with the U.S. Forest Service.
“Re-opening access to Miller Bar, Nook Bar, Redwood Bar and the South Fork should be a top priority of the Forest Service,” Martin wrote.
He explained that the fall salmon fishery will be vital to make up revenue lost during the summer season because of the fire.
“Now the local sportfishing community is about to start another important season, the fall Chinook season, on the Chetco River. This will be an important fishery for the sportfishing industry, including local motels, restaurants and other merchants, as winter approaches,” he wrote.
“If the launches in the Upper Chetco remain closed, visiting anglers, an extremely important segment of the Brookings-Harbor economy, will consider fishing elsewhere.”
The fire’s impact
Deep in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, where the Chetco Bar Fire burned hottest, flames scorched the soil and left a barren landscape covered with charred tree trunks and little vegetation.
“The overstory (tree leaves) is gone, so there is nothing to break the fall of the raindrops, and there’s no ground cover to help the water infiltrate the soil,” Dallon explained at Thursday’s meeting. “The ground has lost its ability to be a sponge, and the water is just going to run off.”
In areas of little or no remaining vegetation, landslides are more likely to happen, said soil scientist Kip McDonald.
It could take several years for the land to recover enough to decrease the flow of water in charred areas, McDonald said.
On a positive note, he added, the fire burned so quickly in most areas that it didn’t “cook” the soil as much as they expected.
“We can expect to see new growth much sooner than we thought,” he said.
Another concern was invasive species taking over areas where the natural fauna was destroyed.
“Invasive species are a threat in about 12,900 acres within the fire’s perimeter and in the suppression areas,” Chatel said. “We will implement a detect-and-destroy program in those areas.”
Trees and branches in danger of falling at recreational sites will be removed, as will those along roads, trails and river bars. Holes in the ground where pit toilets once stood will be capped to prevent people, animals and debris from falling in.
Of the 282 miles of road within the Chetco Bar Fire perimeter, 136 miles will require minor to moderate repair, officials said. The work will include clearing ditches, rebuilding culverts and installing water bars or cross drains to prevent further damage.
Of the 65 miles of hiking trails in the fire area, about 18 miles will be repaired, officials said.
Officials estimated the fire destroyed about 26 Northern spotted owl nests, and 37 percent of the habitat that supports the marbled murrelet.
The cost of doing all of the BAER team’s recommendations is about $1.8 million, Chatel said.
The local Forest Service Office can approve up to $500,000 of that, but the remaining money will have to be approved the Washington D.C. office, which Chatel expects to be done next week.
Meanwhile, the BAER team is contracting with work teams from various agencies and will start implementing some of the recommendations next week.
“The clock is ticking; we have a limited window of opportunity before the winter rains set in to get as many of these treatments done as soon as possible,” Chatel said. “Coordination among the various agencies is going to be crucial, just like it was with fighting the fire.”