In recent years the West has experienced many catastrophic fires that create long-term watershed damage. With no vegetation left to hold the soil in place, flooding and erosion can follow.
In August 2015 a large fire in Northern Idaho left massive destruction in several counties, destroying homes and natural resources. This spurred a team effort between government agencies and local landowners to work toward repairing the damage.
Eileen Rowan at the Orofino field office of the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission, says her five-county area put together a team to do the technical work to assess what was needed for restoring the natural resources, while another group addressed rebuilding of homes.
“As our group came together, the Association of Conservation Districts went to the Idaho Legislature and obtained funds to work on some of the high priority projects identified by the technical group,” Rowan said. “After we had the money we contacted landowners to decide on projects we might do.”
The Idaho Conservation District also applied for a Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund grant to work on the Lolo Creek Cutoff Road because of all the erosion. No timber remained to hold the soil, and with salvage harvest, the roads were being used more.
“We obtained a grant to work on that road, and we also worked with the Idaho Firewise program,” she said.
The Clearwater Soil and Water District obtained the first grant in the area with Idaho Firewise, and did 25 homeowner assessments so they could help landowners protect them more effectively from wildfire.
These assessments looked at fire risks and suggested management practices that would be helpful to homeowners, farmers and ranchers.
“Lewis County also received a Firewise grant this past fall and has done 7 assessments. Idaho County has done 10 assessments,” said Rowan.
The technical group has been working with landowners to replant trees after the salvage logging.
“They’ve also reseeded critical areas, and rebuilt a lot of fence because many miles of fences were burned up in the fire,” she said.
The re-seeding was an effort to repair the watershed and improve water quality.
“Many fire lines were put in by fire crews and by farmers and ranchers while fighting the fire. All of those needed to be seeded because they went down to bare soil,” she said. Many burned areas also had no vegetation, so these projects were an effort to speed the healing process — toward a more stable natural condition.
“This is ongoing. It looks like the Idaho Conservation District will again obtain a landscape restoration grant from IDL (the Idaho Department of Lands),” she said. “That money should come in June of 2017 to help us work with farmers and ranchers to do more seeding and planting.”
Most of the 2015 fires were on private land instead of federal or state-owned lands, so they are trying to help the farmers and ranchers, said Rowan.
“The group effort is paying off. This included County Emergency Management people, the weed supervisors, commissioners for four affected counties, conservation districts, Idaho Soil Conservation Commission, IDL, (Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service, and many volunteers who were not being paid. Everyone came to the table to help,” she said.
“We are still working on this project. Many good things are coming out of it besides the reseeding and road repairs (which included putting in culverts to take care of runoff and minimize erosion),” she said. “The landscape restoration grant in June will enable us to make the next big push to continue the watershed repair.”