Rehab teams focus on secondary damage
RENO – Even though the California portion of the Martis Fire was declared under control Tuesday, the area isn’t out of the clear just yet.
Officials now have to deal with the devastation left in the fire’s wake, devastation that could fill the Truckee River with enough silt and other debris to potentially shrink Reno’s water supply by more than half.
Because vegetation anchors rocks, boulders and other ground cover, newly denuded moutnainsides are vulnerable to extreme erosion, especially during thunderstorms.
The fire destroyed virtually all the vegetation in the Bronco Canyon watershed and a large part of the Gray Creek drainage, both of which feed into the Truckee River, Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger said.
And with seasonal thunderstorms possibly around the corner in July and August, he fears the consequences.
“That’s my biggest concern now, more so than the fire,” he said. “Heavy rains of any type could be devastating with silt and crud coming down and filling the Truckee River. I’m not a water engineer, but thunderstorms sit up there on the divide right there and really pour. There’s nothing there (on the mountains) to hold the water.”
The Martis Fire began at 12:04 p.m. Sunday just east of Glenshire and has burned an estimated 12,600 acres into western Nevada. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection originally estimated that 17,000 acres had burned, but new infrared data showed a smaller burn area.
Aside from polluting area rivers, runoff from rain storms could dislodge boulders and other debris in the burned area north of Interstate 80, potentially into westbound traffic.
Just as vulnerable is the 42-home community of Floriston, which sits on a mountainside that has been denuded of vegetation.
U.S. Forest Service hydrologists Tim Biddinger and Rick Weaver arrived on scene at the Martis Fire Incident Command Center in Reno Tuesday to begin assessing just how badly the fire damaged soils, wildlife habitat, watersheds and other ecological components.
As co-team leaders of the Martis Fire rehabilitation effort, they also will be charged with prescribing measures for areas they determine pose a threat.
They will enlist the expertise of soil scientists, archaeologists, wildlife biologists, fish biologists and other resource specialists to assess as much damage and risk as possible.
First, they’ll map the entire fire area and plot roads, drainages, riparian habitat, steep slopes and other sensitive areas, as well as the burn intensity – low, moderate or high.
“If you’ve got an area where 90 percent of it is (categorized as) high, you’ve got a good chance of something happening there,” Biddinger said. “If you get a really gullygusher, it could cause problems.”
Added Weaver: “Reno uses 130 million gallons of water a day – 60 percent from the Truckee River – and if the filtering plant gets plugged up, that could cause all kinds of problems.”
In that case, they and the rest of their team would measure the risk against the values they’re there to protect – life, property, water quality, water control and soil productivity.
From there, they’ll develop a list of rehabilitation measures and associated cost estimates, which they must forward to the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s too immense,” Terwilliger said of the burn area. “The whole Bronco Canyon watershed and a large part of the Gray Creek drainage is denuded of vegetation. If they did an aerial seed, they might get some vegetation in a year or two, but I’m worried about two weeks from now.”
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