Cooperative effort tackles Bison fire recovery
Within days after the Bison fire was contained, a team of stakeholders was making plans for the most cost-effective ways to rehabilitate the burn area from the 24,137-acre fire.
Ryan Elliott, fire rehabilitation coordinator for the Carson City district of the Bureau of Land Management, said in an interview last week, participants had 21 days to develop a fire rehabilitation emergency stabilization plan.
The plan was submitted on Aug. 5, and has been approved by the state office. Elliott said he is waiting for national approval and funding.
So far, about $1 million has been allocated for rehabilitation for the lightning-caused fire which cost $10 million to put out.
“Spending a tenth of what it cost to suppress to try to rehabilitate is not a very significant number,” Elliott said. “We just don’t have the money to do everything.”
Elliott said the BLM worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Western Nevada Agency and consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Nevada Department of Forestry and Nevada Department of Agriculture, the Washoe Tribe and the Sagebrush Ecosystem Technical Team.
“The approach for the plan was sound and recommendations were approved by all partners. It’s fairly unprecedented bringing that many agencies together. It’s pretty exciting,” Elliott said.
The team agreed to set three priorities, and determined funding would be available for the first two.
“The plan-making went very well. We’re all natural resource professionals, we went out and looked at the area and came up with a common framework,” he said.
Elliott said plans are to begin aerial seeding in late October on 6,000 acres above the 7,000-foot level on the north and east facing slopes in the Pine Nut Mountains.
That area has the best chance to recreate the bi-state habitat for the endangered sage grouse.
“That area tends to hold snow and moisture the longest. We identified it as the first candidate for seeding,” Elliott said.
The goal is to have the aerial seeding applied by the end of November and early December.
“We would really be in good shape if we can get it put down the same time Mother Nature would do it,” he said.
Acknowledging that 6,000 acres is only 25 percent of the burn area, Elliott said after aerial seeding, hand crews would hit the ground.
“We going to identify one- and two-acre plots — up to 300 acres — as good candidates to hand-seed native vegetation. These ‘islands’ would be capable of being natural seed source which over time would allow the area to recover,” Elliott said.
This stage of revegetation is being funded from cooperating agencies like the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and what the BLM can get from its national emergency regional stabilization rehabilitation program.
The BLM is considering restricting off-road vehicle use to existing roads and trails, as it has done in the aftermath of past fires.
“After the Ray May fire, and the Preacher and Carter Springs fires, we had the same access limited to existing roads and trails. Off-highway vehicle groups have come forward and helped with that effort. It’s more of an education standpoint when we’ve gotten complaints. With a few exceptions, most locals generally respect that (the restrictions),” Elliott said.
As for the size, Elliott said the Bison fire is the largest in the Pine Nuts that anyone knows of, and one of the largest in Douglas County history.
The fire burned east of Minden and Gardnerville and west of Smith Valley.
Along with other fire professionals, Elliott marveled at the Bison fire’s behavior.
“Historically, if we have a fire on the west side, it burns up to the top of the Pine Nuts and stops. This fire burned over the top and down the other side,” Elliott said.
He is a fire-planning specialist, and said on July 5 — the second day of the fire — there was less than 2/10ths of a 1 percent chance that the Bison fire would grow to the size it did.
“This is what the BLM would call ‘an exceptional event.’ Typically, what will happen is the fire will start in the afternoon, burn really actively, and lay down at night which gives fire crews a chance to get around it. The next day, it might pick up again.
“This fire never did that. It just kept going all night long for six days. That was what was so unusual. It never laid down, and firefighters fought it every step of the way.”
East Fork Fire Investigator Terry Taylor shared that observation.
“The thing I noticed about this fire was that it burned in a direction with vigor that my training and experience said it really shouldn’t have,” Taylor said.
In a recent tour of the area, Taylor pointed out “spalling” on rocks, signs of “foliage freeze,” and the general absence of birds and other wildlife as evidence of the fire’s power and direction.
Recent heavy afternoon rains left behind signs of flash flooding.
Rocks were deposited in gullies, and the ground under water turned to what Taylor called “chocolate mousse” in the path of fast-moving water that had no vegetation to slow it down.
In spite of the desolation, bright green shoots of new growth were easy to spot next to the blackened remains of piñon and sage.
Taylor said he takes advantage of the burn area as a huge outdoor classroom since the fire, making frequent visits, at times with wildland firefighters who live in the area and were on the line and who can provide their witness to what happened.
“I come up here and use it as a lab to reset my brain on a wildland fire,” Taylor said. “If I don’t come back and see this, I won’t remember what it looked like.”