The Gap Fire – which burned 9,554 acres in the mountains above Goleta and forced thousands of residents to evacuate this July – will continue affecting the county’s landscape in the months, and even years, to come.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team – which was assigned to assess the damage and ecological impact of the fire over the summer – recently released its findings and proposed treatment options for the affected area. According to the BAER report, 76 percent of burned land underwent moderate to high burn severity. As a result, nearby homes, businesses and infrastructure – including the Santa Barbara Airport and Highway 101 – are considered at risk of future damage.
“Given the predicted effects of the fire, all of these [structures] are at great risk for serious consequences from flooding, landslides, debris flows and other events should significant rainfall occur on the burned area within the next three years,” the report said.
The Gap Fire, which first ignited on July 1, made national headlines at a time when hundreds of fires threatened communities across California. On July 5, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger met with firefighters in Santa Barbara and declared it the state’s top firefighting priority.
At its peak, over 1,100 firefighters from 28 states were combating the Gap Fire, using 87 fire engines, nine helicopters, 10 air tankers and 15 bulldozers. The National Guard was called in to help combat the fire and the American Red Cross had stations in Santa Barbara to help aid firefighters and others who were affected by the fire or the smoke.
In addition to assessing the damage, the BAER report proposed various treatment solutions. However, only 48 percent of the affected land belongs to the U.S. Forest Service, and the Forest Service has no authority over the remaining private and non-federal public land affected by the fire. Difficult terrain and limited access for vehicles also makes treatment challenging.
In order to reduce the impact of the fire, the BAER team proposed aerial hydromulching to replace the vegetative cover lost to the fire. The hydromulch – an organic mix of paper-wood fiber, water and a binding substance – will be administered to the land to protect the soil from erosion and create an environment for native vegetation to grow. The process is scheduled to start Sept. 24 and will take several weeks to complete.
Other solutions include installing debris racks at key locations and monitoring the landscape for noxious weeds, which hinder the growth of natural vegetation.
According to the report, these measures will provide some assistance to the Gap Fire land, but local cooperation must play a role in the process as well.
“While treatments on National Forest lands will help to reduce the impacts of the fire, these measures will not completely mitigate the effects of the fire, and will be most effective in concert with additional treatments on private lands downstream,” the report said.
The BAER program is made up of experts in fields such as hydrology, botany, archaeology and engineering to determine the damage in wake of wildfires, as well as devise steps to minimize the damage to the burned area.