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BAER crews release maps on severity of Bedrock Fire

Man surveying charred hillside.
Scott Raymond
John Chatel, the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team Leader surveys a drainage area of a hillside on the Willamette National Forest during the Bedrock Fire, Sept. 17, 2023.

Weekend showers and cool, overnight temps are helping put a damper on regional wildfires. But survey crews say there’s still need for caution in severely burned areas.

And as it turns out, there’s a map for that.

20 specialists comprise what’s called the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team. They’ve just finished surveying the Bedrock Fire site east of Eugene.

Kassidy Kern is a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. She told KLCC that the BAER specialists have maps out now for vegetation mortality, and soil burn severity. She added that nearly 11% of the Bedrock Fire site had “high burn” severity.

“Those are the areas that our specialists really focused on," she said. "Just give information to the forest so that they can immediately address some potential hazards for debris flows, in-stream flows, things that look like we need to do some emergency stabilization.”

Just under 29% of the surveyed area had “moderate” burn severity.

maps of wildfire burn area
Two maps issued by the USDA show the extent of soil burn severity and vegetation mortality caused by the Bedrock Fire.

“Where the Bedrock Fire moved through the burn scars of the 2017 Jones and 2021 Gales fires, those reburned areas show more high and moderate soil-burn severity. Other areas that burned outside of those fire scars have only small pockets of high and moderate severity," said BAER Team Leader John Chatel in a release.

“A review of the high soil-burn severity areas showed no ground cover, powdery grey or white ash present and no roots under the surface, which reduces the integrity of the soil,” the release explained.

The worse the severity, the worse the stability when the weather turns rainy. Erosion, landslides, shifting rock, and blocked roads and culverts are potential hazards through the winter, even after the wildfire smoke has cleared.

Man surveying burnt forest area.
Scott Raymond
Barton Wills, a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Geologist, surveys a drainage area of a hillside on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon during the Bedrock Fire, Sept. 17, 2023.

Kern said overall, nearly 61% of the area had low or very low burn severity.

“And so when you go out there and see all that red, give yourself a pause because it’s not as bad as it may initially seem,” she continued. “Remember that under the soil we have a lot of things that are going to hold the soil in place. Those fine root systems, the larger root systems. And then they’re already regrowing and starting the next round of life.”

Kassidy said the maps should help people navigate areas that are now at risk for erosion and instability.

In the release, BAER explains that above ground vegetation can aid in the recovery of a burned forest.

“For example, in areas where the trees were scorched and killed, those conifer trees will drop their needles, which provides very helpful natural ground cover. Since post-fire soil erosion is a major concern of soil scientists, this natural ground cover plays a crucial role in slowing the interaction between rain drops and soil particles that would otherwise get washed down the hillslope.

“The BAER team creates a vegetation mortality map that focuses on the wildfire effects to the forest and is reported in percent of basal area loss. Basal area is the average amount of an area (such as an acre) occupied by tree stems. This product helps other scientists, such as wildlife biologists, botanists, and silviculturists understand what to expect from this changed landscape for wildlife habitat, invasive weeds, and timber production.

While lots of trees and other vegetation died, nature is resilient, and we’ve already seen evidence of many plant species sprouting up amongst the newly blackened and open canopy forest.”

As of Friday, the Bedrock Fire was 98% contained and holding at roughly 32,000 acres.

The BAER Team is now headed to the Lookout Fire perimeter for more surveying.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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