In hopes of reversing the effects of this summer’s Gap Fire, the U.S. Forest Service will be coating the burned hills above Goleta with an organic material aimed at promoting new growth.
Over the next several weeks, a squadron of small planes will be making trips to the affected areas to administer a hydromulch treatment onto the 1,531 acres of National Forest land destroyed in the Gap Fire.
The hydromulch treatment option was proposed in the Burned Area Emergency Response assessment report several weeks ago and officially began Sept. 24. Kathy Good, the Public Affairs Officer for the Los Padres National Forest, said the hydromulch will prevent future damage to the burned land in the upcoming months.
“The primary purpose is to provide a protective cover on the soil to help it through the first winter season,” Good said.
In total, the Gap Fire burned 9,554 acres, igniting July 1, 2008 and eventually forcing thousands of Goleta residents to evacuate their homes. At its peak, over 1,100 firefighters from 28 states combated the blaze and, at a time when hundreds of fires burned across the state, was deemed the number one firefighting priority in California.
The B.E.A.R. report stated that without proper treatment, the lack of soil and vegetation in the burn areas could result in severe flooding, endangering not only homeowners, but also key infrastructure such as the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and U.S. Highway 101.
The hydromulch – an organic mix of paper and wood fiber, water and a binding substance – hardens and binds to the soil on the hillside, thereby preventing erosion and creating an environment for native vegetation to grow.
The mulch is deposited to the burned areas from the air and contains an organic green dye that allows pilots to accurately drop the treatment. After a few days, the green coloring fades to a brownish-gray.
Planes are scheduled to fly seven days a week out of the Santa Barbara airport, making approximately 250 flights per day. Additionally, a sky crane helicopter is operating from a temporary base on Rancho San Fernando Rey to help with the efforts.
The Forest Service only has the authority to treat National Forest land, while the County of Santa Barbara and other organizations are responsible for the remaining acres of private land.
Good said the contractor for the hydromulching process estimates the treatment plan will take about a month to complete. The treatment of National Forest land is funded by the Fire Service and costs approximately $3,200 per acre.
All told, the contract for the 1,531 acres was nearly $4.8 million.
Not all burned land will be treated, however. According to Good, the Forest Service relies on certain criteria when determining treatment solutions for the land.
“The areas we’ve selected for the hydromulch treatment sustained moderate to high burn severity and are the most prone to erosion,” Good said. “The selected areas are on slopes less than 60 percent [grade]. If you go any steeper than that, it won’t be effective.”
In a statement, Santa Barbara District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky – who is in charge of overseeing the operation – said the treated areas should remain closed to the public for the best results.
“Walking, biking, driving or horseback riding on the mulch will compromise the protective mat and reduce its effectiveness, leading to more erosion,” said Chojnacky. “Protecting the damaged watershed and minimizing the threat to communities below the fire is going to take a concerted team effort over a long period of time. We really need the public’s assistance and cooperation.”