Photo Credit: When wildfire damages nonfederal land and ecological assessments are needed, who foots the bill? State and Private Lands Burned Area Emergency Response Team members examining soil damage post wildfire. Photo by Andrew Phay, Whatcom Conservation District
It’s always about money. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams, the people who assess ecological, hydrological and forest conditions after a wildfire, are not cheap. And, BAER teams are usually federal employees, working on federal lands. What happens, then, when private or state lands burn in a wildfire and need ecological assessments? In the spirit of learning by doing, Washington funded and deployed nonfederal BAER teams (think “iBAER”) in 2014 and again in 2015, and we thought others could learn from our effort.
Right after the Carlton Complex firestorm, I asked my friend Michael Liu (now retired) if the Forest Service would be doing BAER assessments in the burned areas that weren’t on the Forest itself. Michael was the district ranger at the Methow District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. While the Carlton Complex burned 86,000 federal acres, it also burned 590 acres of tribal land, 69,885 acres of state land, and 98,753 acres of private land. He wasn’t immediately sure if federal BAER teams could work on nonfederal property, but he said that he would look into it.
I crossed paths with Michael a few days later, and we discussed the potential BAER analysis further, while he was waiting for a response from his superiors, about including the entire burn area in their BAER analysis. I suggested that it would be great if we could get a couple of Okanogan Conservation District (Okanogan CD) employees intermixed with the USFS BAER team so that they could learn about the BAER process. I explained that we have a soil scientist on our staff as well as access to an engineer, and could probably find some of the other disciplines if needed.
Ultimately, the USFS decided that they could not survey beyond Forest Service property, and consequently, we needed to find a different solution. Somewhere along the way, though, Michael had asked enough questions that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Washington Department of Emergency Management got involved in the conversation. I never heard the details, but what I do know is that in about the third week of August (2014), Michael contacted me and said that he may have a solution if we could come up with the technical professionals that I said we could. I told him that I thought we would be able to do it, and he set up a conference call with USFS Region 6, FEMA, Washington Department of Emergency Management staff, and me to discuss it further.
My colleague Leslie Michel (a soil scientist at our district) and I soon found ourselves needing to form a team of approximately 15 people, with a mix of training in soil science, engineering, hydrology, archeology, geospatial analysis and possibly fisheries. We put the call out to other conservation districts as well as our agency and nonprofit partners to see who would be willing and able to commit to the following:
Be available on less than 72 hours’ notice sometime in the next 14 days to arrive in Okanogan and be prepared to work 12–14 hour days for a minimum of seven but probably not more than 10 days straight to conduct a burned area emergency analysis on the state and private lands within the Carlton Complex Fire footprint.
A tough ask.
One week later, the federal agencies asked if we had any success, and Leslie read the 19 names of the people who had signed up and their specialties to everyone. At that moment, FEMA agreed to reimburse the Forest Service (which they could do because we had “earned” a Presidential Disaster Declaration) for three experienced BAER team leads to guide us on this endeavor if we could commit to getting our list of folks to Okanogan within a week.
The team worked 9.5 days (straight), concluding with two public presentations to inform the community about the findings. We provided copies of the report online and to local emergency management and agency partners. The final report influenced the location of the 14 emergency notification rain gauges in and around the burn area. It was also used to update the list of eligible structures for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection program, which once implemented protected 15 homes from debris flows and flash flooding. And, the Okanogan Conservation District used the data to obtain funding for emergency post-wildfire seeding in critical locations. The study also resulted in the installation of flash flood warning signs.
Following the 2015 Okanogan and North Star Complexes (which when combined, burned just under half-a-million acres), we once again deployed a State and Private Lands BAER team. Additionally, at the request of the Stevens County Conservation District and the Washington State Emergency Management, the Okanogan CD deployed a State and Private Lands BAER team for the Carpenter Road Fire that same year. Both of these teams were deployed without federal guidance, making them truly state and local resource teams.
To fund these teams, which cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, the Okanogan CD used funds initially appropriated by the Washington State Conservation Commission, which were ultimately backfilled by the Washington State Legislature. In total, the legislature approved $1.1 million during the 2015 legislative session for fire recovery work. These funds could be allocated to BAER teams, the aforementioned Emergency Watershed Protection program, emergency grass seeding, emergency rain gages, and some forms of landowner recovery assistance. Following the 2015 fires, the Washington State legislature approved another $6 million to be distributed by the Washington State Conservation Commission. This money went to conservation districts working with private landowners on fire recovery from the 2015 fires. Our earlier State and Private Lands BAER reports were pivotal in showing the need for these funds.
Since 2015, our conservation district, the Washington State Conservation Commission and the Washington Department of Natural Resources have been exploring how to fund and deploy teams in future years. Thankfully, we’ve been fortunate in that a State and Private Lands BAER analysis has not been necessary since 2015, but the next time when we need one, we’ll be ready.