Racing the Winter: Charlotte Fire Remediation

March 26, 2013

On June 28, 2012, a fire driven by high winds and scorching summer temperatures ravaged the hills-part of the Bannock Range-south of Pocatello, ID. The accidental fire ignited on Charlotte Drive, located at the upper end of a highly populated mountain community, traveled down the mountainside into the Mink Creek area, and eventually burned into the Gibson Jack area, the nearest northwestern valley. These regions that were once covered with dry grasses and juniper trees became an inferno that consumed approximately 1,038 acres of both federal and private land, destroyed 66 homes and 29 outbuildings, and in a little over four hours left in its wake nearly $7.2 million dollars in damage.

Many home- and landowners experienced obvious severe detriment to their property after the fire raged through the hills that afternoon, as more than 800 acres of the burnt land was privately owned. At 4,450 feet above sea level, Pocatello typically gets 12 inches of rainfall and 47 inches of snowfall per year-a dangerous amount when soils lacking nutrients and vegetation are on the receiving end. Direct concerns of the home- and landowners and local officials prompted a plan to remediate the damaged area, thereby preventing soil erosion or landslides, moderating stormwater runoff, protecting the local residents and private property, and providing a safe habitat for wildlife.

Within days of the fire being contained, Dave Schmidt, an area conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) and his colleagues evaluated the damage and identified critical areas in need of remediation. One of the biggest concerns was the land that had been heavily covered by juniper trees, which typically absorb a considerable amount of rainfall and additionally emit a toxin into the soil that eliminates potentially competitive growth below them. There was very little vegetation behind to control runoff or stabilize the soil in the badly burned areas. “We spent numerous days looking at flooding and soil erosion potential,” Schmidt says. “The potential is there for some serious mud and rock debris.”  In addition to the juniper-covered areas, other critical areas included steep slopes located above homes and infrastructure, especially culverts and roads.

Schmidt was contacted by an aide to Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, expressing the urgency for a grant to fund the remediation of the Charlotte Fire burn area. A formal request for emergency funds was submitted to the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP), an NRCS program designed to respond to emergencies caused by natural disasters. As stated on the NRCS website, “It [EWP] is designed to relieve imminent hazards to life and property caused by floods, fires, windstorms, and other natural occurrences. The purpose of EWP is to help groups of people with a common problem.”

The EWP provides necessary funding to private landowners so they have the means to immediately remediate areas in need after natural disasters take place, such as the Charlotte Fire. EWP funds will provide up to 75% of the overall cost of an approved remediation construction project. The rest of the cost has to be provided by local sources, such as a local project sponsor, often a city or county. This cost can be made up of cash or in-kind services that would equal 25% of the construction cost. Bannock County commissioners agreed to act as the project sponsor and appointed Dan Copeland, Bannock County Public Works director, as co-director of the Charlotte Fire remediation project.

Bannock County provided its 25% portion of the cost of construction through cash donatikons and in-kind services that included manpower, machinery, utility usage, storage areas for materials, funding of the bidding and contracting, and numerous other tasks that the county fulfilled as they arose.

The critical remediation area was so extensive that the team chose hydroseeding by both air and ground application as the best management practice for the project. Other BMPs such as silt fences, wattles, straw tacking, and drill seeding were also considered. Home- and landowners implemented some of these tactics immediately following the fire using their own funds and resources.

“Truly, what we needed to do was to get some cover on the land with a mixture of the mulch and seed,” Schmidt said during an interview while supervising the ground application of the hydroseeding mulch slurry. Copeland added, “It [hydromulch] covers a vast area…covering as much area as we can with the dollars that we have.”

Once a remediation strategy was chosen, a meeting was held to introduce the hydroseeding plan to the owners affected by the blaze. For the project to move forward, the team had to procure signed lien releases from all of the home- and landowners in the area to have the right to perform the hydroseeding on private land and to release the county from any liability in case of accidental damages during or after the remediation. Very few of those approached were opposed to the plan; most of the releases were signed and the project was made public for hydroseeding contractors to submit bids. Initially, the county was looking for bids on aerial application. Unfortunately, the quotes that were received were not within the project budget, and the county was forced to look at spraying the area using ground applicators instead.

The applicators who won the bids are longtime purchasers of NaturesOwn hydromulches and recommended the product to the team of officials. The county officials were surprised to learn that one of the larger manufacturers of mulch was right in Idaho, only 120 miles away in the small city of Twin Falls. Hamilton Manufacturing Inc. (HMI) is a 50-year-old, family-owned-and-operated manufacturer of a variety of organic, recycled cellulose mulches. HMI was able to provide expertise from past projects, such as the reclamation of the 2008 Jesusita Fire near Santa Barbara, CA, which destroyed many homes there. The proximity of the manufacturing plant to the Charlotte Fire drop zone kept the freight costs down, and erosion control third-party testing results made the team feel confident that the bidding process had chosen the right product and contractor for the job.

“There was no reason not to use NaturesOwn,” Dan Copeland concurred.

One of the contractors was Anderson Hydroseeding, locally owned and operated by brothers Todd and Noel Anderson since 1995. The company used its 900-gallon tow-behind trailer to get into every nook and cranny in the locations it was contracted to spray. The 40-horsepower Isuzu motor pumped the slurry out at about 65 gallons per minute (gpm) and sprayed a distance of up to 160 feet. Some of the areas that Anderson Hydroseeding had been contracted to cover were on terrain steep enough that the crew connected its trailer to a Caterpillar and backed it down the slopes to apply the mulch slurry to the hard-to-reach locations. The Anderson Hydroseeding crew worked sunup to sundown for roughly 10 days to complete its portion of the project.

A few days before Anderson had completed its portion of the contract, Apex Erosion Control, a contractor from Clarkston, WA, and a subcontractor, Selby’s Soil Erosion Control from Newcastle, CA, brought in larger, more specialized equipment to spray the longer, steeper, and more expansive slopes. The two companies brought three of finest application trucks, ranging from 4,000- to 5,000-gallon capacity, which were onsite for approximately eight days and together covered around 350 acres. The smaller of the two Apex trucks was a 5600I International truck with a 525-horsepower Cummins diesel motor that housed a 23,000-pound front end, a 46,000-pound rear end, six-wheel drive, all lockers. It carried a massive 4,000-gallon Apex Xtreme hydroseeding machine with a 220-horsepower Deutz motor that was capable of spraying 300 to 400 feet. The larger truck was a Kenworth T800 with a 650-horsepower Cummins Diesel motor. This truck had a 22,000-pound front end and a 78,000-pound rear end with triple drive axles and triple lockers. It, too, had an Apex Xtreme, although this one was a bit larger with a 5,000-gallon capacity and a 275-horsepower John Deere motor that also gave it the power to spray 300 to 400 feet. The bright yellow cab on Selby’s 357 Peak Peterbilt, with a 350-horsepower Cummins diesel motor, was easy to spot on the slopes and fit in with the Apex pack with a 4,000-gallon Apex Xtreme and its 180-horsepower Deutz engine that pushed the slurry out at a distance of up to 300 feet. All three trucks were able to pump the slurry out at 1,000 gpm and apply 85,000 pounds of mulch per day.

The mulch that was used during the remediation varied from a stabilized mulch matrix (SMM) to a bonded fiber matrix (BFM) depending on the degree and length of the slopes, severity of the damage, and access to the spray locations. The slurry was made up of one of two mulches; Triple Tac tackifier; a seed mixture made up of wheatgrasses, alfalfa, and blue flax; and water in applications of 1,500 to 2,500 pounds per acre. NaturesOwn High Density SMM, a recycled cellulose mulch, was mixed into the slurry and used on the shorter, less steep slopes of the burn area. Evolution 70 BFM, composed of recycled cellulose and an alternative naturally strong agricultural fiber, was implemented in the steeper, longer slopes to add additional bonding characteristics to ensure protection of the land during germination of the seed.

Many of slopes greater than 2:1 and 900 feet long were covered with Evolution 70 during the last nine days of application. The burned cliffs and canyons that overhang the county highway and rest above hundreds of homes were of concern and proved to be a challenge because of limited access. A nearly 2-mile-long Bureau of Land Management trail allowed access to the cliffs. From there, tactics were devised to remove dead trees and debris from a steep cliff to create an approximately 500-foot-long trail down an extremely steep slope that would allow the contractors access to the outermost edge of the critical burn area. Safety concerns arose, and the team opted to connect the massive trucks to a large Caterpillar that would lower them and the fully loaded 4,000-gallon machine down the road, wait for the coverage process, and slowly pull them back up to safety. There was some concern about the angle of the slope and amount of heavy equipment involved, but in the end the target areas that could possibly result in severe erosion were covered.

“I don’t think that anything like this application has ever been documented before,” says John Larson, owner and operator of Apex Erosion Control. With a desire to document it to the fullest extent, Larson initiated three flights around the application area to take photographs and video to share with the erosion control community.
“Others have just got to see this!”

Just two days after the application was complete, a snowstorm covered the entire area with several inches of snow. The location is to be monitored by representatives of the NRCS in the months and years to come. As of December 5, warmer winter weather had melted most of the snow that fell the month earlier to reveal continuous coverage of the burned land with sprigs of seedlings already protruding through the mulch. It is the best outcome the team could have hoped for, and they can’t wait to see what the hills will look like in the spring.

While he was overseeing the operation, Dan Copeland confidently stated, “Let’s mark this spot [a slope near the Bannock County Highway] and meet here in the spring to document the vegetation that is sure to grow.”

About the Author

Dori Larna

Dori Larna, BS, LEED AP, is with HMI Hamilton Manufacturing Inc. in Twin Falls, ID.