SUBLETTE COUNTY – The Roosevelt Fire was declared 100 percent contained by the Incident Command Type III team on Oct. 5 due to the incredible work of firefighting crews and wetter weather.
Last week, even though a few hotspots continued to smolder, the U.S. Forest Service began transitioning from fighting the fire to suppression repair and recovery efforts. Remaining fire crews work with suppression repair, while the burned area emergency response team, or BAER team, assess burn intensity inside the fire perimeter to identify vulnerable places that need repaires.
Suppression repair involves cleaning up the damage caused by firefighting efforts over the past weeks. Firefighting crews often had to tear down fences to get in and put out hotspots. They also built fire lines to stop the advance of the fire and protect homes by cutting down rows of trees and vegetation or bulldozing lines of trenches.
The goal of suppression repair is to fill in the trenches, remove trees and brush that were cut down and return vegetation to the affected areas, Don Jaques, Incident Command public information officer, said on Tuesday.
“We work to restore the damaged areas to their natural state so the forest can begin to heal,” he said.
Hundreds of trees that were cut down are sorted by heavy machinery. Valuable wood is salvaged and gathered into log decks rather than left in messy slash piles. The Forest Service then sells as much of the wood as possible.
Less valuable trees are shredded. The chips and pine needles are spread over the barren fire lines to act as cover over the winter for new vegetation and saplings that will rise from the soil next spring, Jaques said.
Fire crews also work to repair dozer lines that were dug to protect homes. Soil is pulled back over the banks to fill in the trenches and return the geography to its natural contour, Jaques added.
As suppression repair efforts were underway, a team of scientists on the BAER team arrived early last week to begin the process of mapping out burn severity and identifying damaged areas that pose safety hazard and need to be repaired. Hydrologist Trevi Robertson, the BAER team supervisor and manager of water resources for Bridger-Teton National Forest, explained the process to the Examiner with Steve Sobieszczyk, another hydrologist and public information officer for the BAER team.
The focus of the BAER team is to identify severe burn areas where the landscape was drastically altered by the flames, Robertson said. The loss of ground cover in these areas, combined with steep slopes and precipitation, increases the risk of erosion, landslides and flooding.
The BAER team assesses the severe burn areas to determine how the altered landscape will affect public safety on forest infrastructure like roads and trails. The key to this strategy is creating an accurate map of the burn area.
In the past, BAER teams had to gather this information by sending crews out into the field. But today, PIO Sobieszczyk said that technology saves a lot of time and man-hours.
Satellites scan the fire perimeter with infrared wavelengths, Sobieszczyk explained.
Green, healthy forest reflects infrared, while burned, charred trees and vegetation absorb the infrared. The areas that were not affected by fire come out as green on the map, while burn areas are red. The final maps are produced by GIS specialists at a U.S. Geological Survey facility in South Dakota and are sent back to the BAER team.
If an area has been badly damaged by the fire, and the safety of people and wildlife is at risk, the BAER team then proposes a list of treatment plans to stabilize and repair roads and trails.
This list is submitted to Don Kranendonk of the Big Piney Ranger District in the Bridger Teton National Forest. Kranendonk then takes action on the treatment plans and suggestions offered by the BAER team.
Several projects are already underway, Robertson said. This week, crews from the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Sublette County Road and Bridge will begin to stormproof culverts along Upper Hoback Road above Dead Shot Ranch. Their efforts will strengthen the culverts to withstand an increase in erosion and runoff from fire-damaged slopes over the winter and spring.
The BAER team has also recommended closing several forest roads in the Upper Hoback area to keep passenger cars and trucks out. The roads are narrow and on steep slopes, and BAER is concerned that cars might become trapped by falling snags or washouts. Robertson emphasized that the closures are only in a small area, and travel by foot, bicycle, ORV and horseback is still allowed.
The BAER team places signs on affected roads and trailheads to educate and warn the public about the risks posed by falling snags and unstable soil in burn areas.
BAER is also working with the National Weather Service to install an early-warning weather station on forest land near Hoback Ranches to warn residents across the fire perimeter of flooding and landslide events.
While BAER can only implement projects on national forest land, Robertson said that local residents and agencies are welcome to contact BAER for advice and to coordinate recovery efforts with the agency.