HUNTINGTON LAKE – With the Aspen Fire now 90% contained at 22,546 acres burned, the number of personnel on the fire has been reduced to just 230, and the focus of their job has shifted from suppression to rehabilitation.
While some crews continue with mop up and patrol of the fire’s perimeter, others have taken on the task of suppression repair. The end of the firefighting itself doesn’t mean the job is done, it just means another phase has begun.
Many of the firelines are very wide and are down to bare soil, so crews are building water bars to prevent washouts. They are also breaking up large debris piles created by dozers while building the lines, and blading and smoothing out the dirt roads that were damaged with all the heavy equipment moving around in the area.
With rehabilitation set as a high priority, a Burned Area Emergency Rehab (BAER) team has been assigned to the fire.
The BAER team for this fire is led by geologist Alan Gallegos from the Sierra National Forest, and is made up of specialists from various disciplines including hydrologist, soil scientists, geologists, road engineers, ecologists, botanists, and archaeologists.
The purpose of the BAER assessment is to analyze the fire’s effects on soils and watersheds, to address potential risks to life and property, water quality and critical plant and wildlife habitat, and consider possible treatment options.
Forest roads including the Stump Springs Road are a major concern for flood flows and rocks falling onto the road bed. Other values at risk are Mammoth Pool Reservoir and the hydro-power facilities downstream of the fire.
The loss of natural vegetative cover allows water to run off across bare soils with increased velocity. Fire also reduces the ability of the ground to absorb water, reducing water infiltration and increasing runoff. The net result under extreme conditions is a significant risk of flooding and debris flows downstream of the fire area.
Treatments may include hill slope mulching, along with road storm proofing, storm patrol and culvert cleaning, and may help to prevent permanent loss of habitat for threatened and endangered species, and the spread of noxious weeds.
Throughout the suppression efforts on the Aspen Fire, great care was taken to identify and mitigate potential impacts on plant and animal communities, including the use of a weed-washing station near the fire camp.
As engines and other equipment came in off the line, they would stop at the station and drive up onto ramps while high-pressure jets blasted water from underneath. A catch bin under the vehicles captured the water, and the seeds were then strained out and properly disposed of, helping to stop the spread of non-native or invasive weeds.
Another precaution taken was preventing the helicopters from dipping out of the high mountain lakes with buckets they had used in the San Joaquin River or Mammoth Pool without first disinfecting them, to prohibit the spread of something called chytrid fungus.
The fungus is known to kill the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, which is a candidate for both the California and Federal Endangered Species List.
Gus Smith, Lead Resource Advisor in Yosemite National Park, said they are not sure that the fungus is present in the waters of the San Joaquin, but they are acting in an abundance of caution.
“They are allowed to take water out of designated lakes, but they need to dip the bucket into a large tank with a bleach solution for 30 seconds. That kills the fungus if it’s there, and prevents it spreading to other bodies of water.”
With declines in population of up to 95% in recent decades, the yellow-legged frog and the reasons for its near-demise has been the subject of much heated debate. Studies suggest that the recently-discovered amphibian chytrid fungus is a major contributor to the problem, and it is known to be highly fatal to this particular species.
According to Smith, the frog has not been added to the endangered species list, so “we’re not bound by law to do anything right now, but the Sierra National Forest doesn’t want to do anything to harm them.”
Full containment of the Aspen Fire is estimated on Aug. 24, and the management of the incident has now been turned back over to the local forest, the High Sierra Ranger District, which is managing the rehabilitation process.