Stay safe in the forest after fires

The Donnell Fire started on August 1, 2018 near Donnell Lake on the Summit Ranger District. The fire destroyed 81 structures and burned more than 36,000 acres. Hazard trees don’t always fall during fires; these standing trees may fall at any time.

With spring just around the corner, Mother Lode residents are starting to think about getting out and enjoying the region’s natural beauty before great numbers of tourists descend on the Stanislaus National Forest.

Whether you plan to snowmobile, backcountry ski or just go for a hike, visitors should inquire about current conditions through the Stanislaus National Forest. This year, we here at the Forest Service are thinking about not only the extremely high amount of snowmelt that is about to enter our rivers, but the conditions within the Donnell Fire-burned area. As visitors travel up Highway 108, about 16 miles east of Pinecrest, the results of the fire can be seen on both sides of the road from the sign for Mill Creek to the turnoff for Kennedy Meadows. Note that visitors are currently not allowed to stop in this area, as fire-weakened trees could fall at any time.

Stay safe in the forest after fires

As snow melts from mountain areas, rivers and streams begin filling. During high snowpack years rivers and streams can run swift and deep.

After the Donnell Fire last summer, the Forest Service implemented a temporary forest closure order that expires in late May to protect public safety in some affected areas. Depending on the severity, it’s likely some parts of the fire’s footprint will remain closed for safety reasons. It can take between three and five years for fire scars to stabilize – and even longer for vegetation to fully recover. Not all hazards within a fire footprint can be mitigated or avoided, so the most effective way to protect forest visitors is to limit their exposure to the hazards present after recent fires.

You may be surprised how difficult it is to recognize that you’re in a fire scar, especially in the winter. There are more dangers than you might imagine after a fire. Always look for black char on tree trunks, or a sudden change in vegetation, like walking through a shrub field that suddenly disappears.

Even before a wildland fire is officially declared out, representatives with the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team are in the burned area checking conditions and making recommendations to the forest supervisor. The BAER program’s role is to identify imminent post-wildfire threats to human life and safety, property and critical natural or cultural resources on National Forest System lands. Jason Kuiken, the Stanislaus National Forest supervisor, is committed to reopening the forest areas as quickly as possible after fires, but he must be satisfied that the danger has decreased to an acceptable level.

Stay safe in the forest after fires

One danger that can quickly overtake hikers in the forest is debris flows, which can unexpectedly carry masses of boulders, mud, water and debris down steep drainages. This debris flow occurred in the Rim Fire footprint in the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest.

Many hazards in a fire scar are associated with steep, unstable slopes and creek drainages. Flooding, rock falls and debris flows can happen frequently within fire scars. Debris flows can unexpectedly carry masses of boulders, mud, water and debris down steep drainages. Hillsides don’t absorb water as well as before a fire burned because there is less vegetation left to hold rocks and soil in place during rainfall or snowmelt. Floodwaters will rise more rapidly and carry two or three times more water after a fire, compared to a normal year. (See below when considering crossing streams.) You may not realize it, but the risks are still there even after vegetation greens up in the spring and things probably look safer than they did immediately after a fire.

Crossing streams in spring:

• When crossing a snow-covered stream, look and listen for signs of moving water below you. Snow melts from the bottom to the top, making it easy to fall through to the creek below.

• Remember that a stream can have three or more times the flow (and power) late in the day than in the morning, due to daily snowmelt patterns.

• Shallow, rapidly moving water can be deceivingly powerful.

• Muddy water is dangerous because you can’t gauge the depth or look for underwater hazards.

• Water deeper than your knee can easily sweep a person away.

• Never jump in to save a person who has fallen into water; try to throw them a rope tied to a tree. Drownings often happen in pairs because would-be rescuers drown as well.

Considerations for hiking in burned areas:

• Check with any Stanislaus National Forest ranger district office for any forest closure orders for roads, trails or specific areas. Be sure to ask for current creek crossing conditions if you have a place you plan to go.

• Check the weather forecast for rain and/or high winds.

• Keep an eye on dead and fire-weakened trees as you hike and choose open areas or green forest to stop and rest. Keep an eye out for large broken branches still hanging in trees.

• Consider trails that do not have large creek crossings or plan a loop to not cross large creeks in the afternoon.

• Watch for signs of recent avalanches or mudslides. Consider turning around and don’t stop in the path of these areas.

With a very deep snowpack, hazards associated with drainages may be reduced, but it is not something anyone should count on. A stable snowpack covering small creeks and streams means flooding and debris flows are unlikely, but as that snowpack thins and melts, risks can become extreme. When snowmelt is added to the amount of water falling as rain, debris flows can start or flooding can occur more rapidly. As the soil saturates and warms up in the spring, it is possible for debris flows to happen even if there is no rainfall.

It is always good practice to be aware of your surroundings, read and know the rules. Check weather conditions, know if there’s snow on the ground and check fs.usda.gov/Stanislaus to read up on any forest closure orders that have been implemented. A bit of planning can mean you and your friends and family will be safe and have fun in the woods!

Curtis Kvamme is a soil scientist and BAER representative, and Joel Silverman is a wilderness manager with the Stanislaus National Forest. If your club or organization would like to learn more about the BAER program, call Diana Fredlund, public affairs officer, at 288-6261.

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