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Fires may lead to mud slides

Posted: September 19, 2009 8:15 p.m.
Updated: September 20, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
With the flames from the Station Fire dying down, the U.S. Forest Service’s job is shifting from putting out the blaze to assessing its impact and rebuilding.

Forest service officials are already preparing for the next blow Mother Nature will throw at the Angeles National Forest: Winter rains could make the scorched hillsides prone to mud slides.

The Station Fire has scorched more than 250 square miles of national forest, destroyed 89 homes, and claimed the lives of two Los Angeles County firefighters, Capt. Tedmund Hall and Specialist Arnaldo Quinones. As of Friday, the fire was more than 90 percent contained, and full containment is expected by Tuesday.

The Station Fire burned through more than 160,000 acres of vegetation in the Angeles National Forest, creating prime conditions for mud slides when the winter rains arrive, said Stanton Florea, Forest Service spokesman.  
However, without a complete assessment from forest service officials, the agency was reluctant to say how likely the mud slides could be.

“We don’t want to deal in hypotheticals.” Florea said.

Instead, the agency will wait on a report from its Burned Area Emergency Response Team, which assesses the damage done to an area by a wildfire, Florea said.

Loaded for BAER
The BAER (pronounced “bear”) teams respond to wild fires that grow beyond 300 acres. BAER teams are composed of soil scientists, hydrologists, geologists, engineers, archaeologists, biologists, botanists, geographic information specialists. They are tasked with reporting the extent of the fire’s damage to the landscape and suggesting how to mitigate further damage from mud slides.

The Station Fire burned areas of the forest that hadn’t been touched by flames in nearly 60 years.

Introducing fire into the virgin vegetation helped the flames spread quickly and contributed to a total devastation of some reaches of the forest that currently look more like a lunar landscape than a lush forest, Florea said.

“In some areas it burned really hot, and it burned everything in sight,” he said.

Like all wild fires, the Station Fire burned erratically.

“What’s typical of a fire like this is it creates a mosaic pattern,” Florea said. “Some areas burned and some remain untouched. We have large islands of vegetation that are surrounded by burn area.”

During the Station Fire reports continued to surface that Mt. Wilson, home to the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory and much of Southern California’s telecommunication towers, was threatened by the blaze.

Lookout towers an asset
While Mt. Wilson escaped unscathed, Vetter Mountain, home to a fire lookout and weather observing equipment wasn’t so lucky.

Late on Aug. 31, the Station Fire overran Vetter mountain burning the 74-year-old Vetter Mountain Lookout Tower to the ground.

“The fire came from the southeast and overtook the station,” said Pam Morey, Program Coordinator for Forest Care, which runs the Forest Lookout Association.

The destruction of the tower robs the forest service of another asset in the first line of defense against wildfires, Morey said.

From their high perch in the towers, volunteers scan the horizon every 15 minutes searching for plumes of smoke and looking for lighting strikes, which often are the spark that ignites forest infernos.

“We can spot smoke in places where no one else is watching,” she said.

When smoke is spotted or lightning strikes a tree, the volunteers calls Forest Service fire crews and help guide the firefighter to the scene.

“We stay in constant communication with firefighters, helping to guide them to the fire,” Morey said.

Without the forest lookout towers the Forest Service would be blind to what is happening in the farthest reaches of its land.

“People have this misconception that satellites report the start of a fire,” she said. “There has never been a fire that was initially reported by a satellite. The fire has to be large for a satellite to pick it up.”

During the Butler II Fire in the San Bernadino Mountains in 2007, the Butler Lookout was the first to spot a plume of smoke rising from the forest. Firefighter quickly responded to the fire and saved homes in nearby Fawnskin from burning, Morey said.

With the coming rains, the Forest Service won’t begin to consider rebuilding the Vetter Mountain Lookout Tower until the spring. “We want to make sure the slopes are stable before we rebuild,” Morey said. 

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