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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 5:41 pm | Fair 59º


BAER Team of Scientists Evaluating Environmental Impact of Whitter Fire in Santa Ynez Mountains

The Burned Area Emergency Response group is evaluating watershed, habitat impacts of the wildfire


A drive along West Camino Cielo Road and into the front country canyons of the Santa Ynez Mountains shows the dramatic impact of the still-burning Whittier Fire: the open landscape that was once filled with native oak trees and brush is now charred terrain. 

There are areas where plants have been lightly scorched by the flames and others that were smoldering stumps burned to the ground.

With the blaze moving closer to full containment, a crew of soil and water scientists joined firefighters on the ground in Santa Barbara County’s Los Padres National Forest this week.

On Friday, the Burned Area Emergency Response team visited the burn area's southwest perimeter in upper Tecolote Canyon, northwest of Goleta. 

“Oak trees are going to start popping up, and within a year, the trees are going to be green,” said Eric Nicita, who is from Eldorado National Forest and a BAER team soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

“The trees aren’t dead; they just got a bad hair cut. It will start recovering.” 

The BAER team responded to the Whittier Fire burn area to evaluate watershed areas and identify emergency measures necessary to protect sensitive resources.

Their focus is to map fire damage and emergency stabilization to prevent further hazards to human life, property or natural resources, like water quality of local creeks and lakes. 

“We are too premature to start discussing treatments, but have to get a good handle on what was burned,” Nicita said.

This BAER team includes more than 12 members of hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists, vegetation specialists, archaeologists, and others, he said. 

The Whittier Fire burned the upper reaches of Tecolote Canyon, northwest of Goleta. Click to view larger
The Whittier Fire burned the upper reaches of Tecolote Canyon, northwest of Goleta.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The natural vegetation that once slowed water runoff from rains could be gone, which may cause erosion during future rainstorms. 

“If you run water through some areas, it’s just going to wash away,” Nicita said. “We are evaluating the slopes.”

They are working with the National Weather Service to set up flood response and a flood warning system.  

“People have to heed the warnings,” Nicita said, noting the significant January rain and heavy flooding El Capitan Canyon experienced below the Sherpa Fire burn area.

The team also evaluates whether the wildfire damaged the habitat of threatened and endangered species.

They are assessing steelhead trout and the California red-legged frog environments in some of the drainages that may have burned, Nicita said. 

Los Padres National Forest BAER Coordinator Kevin Cooper said the report on the post-fire conditions will reflect the level of impact the Whittier Fire had on soil cover and loss of vegetation. 

The report will have a soil burn severity map and project the impact on watersheds and flooding from increased runoff, he said. 

U.S. Forest Service soil scientist Eric Nicita and other Burned Area Emergency Response team members are evaluating the environmental impact of the Whittier Fire. Click to view larger
U.S. Forest Service soil scientist Eric Nicita and other Burned Area Emergency Response team members are evaluating the environmental impact of the Whittier Fire.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“The analysis helps the Forest Service, individuals and other agencies understand the risks — so that we are all prepared,” Cooper said.

“There’s always the risk that Mother Nature will overwhelm the land and throw an intense storm — everybody needs to take responsibility and know the possibilities.” 

BAER assessments are shared with coordinating agencies and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management.

Whittier Fire reports from the Burned Area Emergency Response team will hopefully will be released by late August, Cooper said, adding that residents should pay close attention to the report.

“Time is critical if treatments are to be effective,” Cooper said.

“It’s important for the safety of everyone, we are the first stage of analysis, but there’s more participation from collaborators, agencies and individuals that will take place. If everyone works together, it will be a good product.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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