Friday, February 26, 2016

In harm’s way after the fire

By Elizabeth Morgan

Clearwater County’s Emergency Management team, under the direction of Don Gardner, advised those residing along Orofino Creek, near the area burned in the Orofino-area Municipal Fire this past year, of some potential risks in the fire’s aftermath.

Of the 22 people who attended the public meeting Feb. 22, more than half were officials from the city and county, the National Weather Service out of Missoula, MT, and a field officer from the Bureau of Homeland Security. 

Issues of concern

Hydrologist Ray Nickless of Missoula’s National Weather Service described the patterns he’s noted in regions affected by wildfires. He shared a couple of fairly recent videos illustrating the intensity of debris flows and flash floods near Salmon and Helena, MT, where wildfires had burned two to three years ago.

As jaws dropped and eyebrows were raised, Nickless assured his audience that the acreage we lost in last summer’s fire was much smaller than those in the videos. 

Geological and terrain studies performed by both the Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service illustrated areas where the fire had burned the hottest, and its impact on the ground.

Aerial maps indicated the draws and drainages along the steep hillside which flow toward Orofino Creek which were of particular concern.

“Presently,” said Nickless, “even though there are many dead trees along the hillside, their roots are still holding the soil. We will be more watchful once those roots begin to decompose in the next couple of years when the potential for harm is greater.

Still, this winter’s precipitation and recent wet weather isn’t as threatening as it might seem, and still not bad as spring rains continue in April and May. Nickless predicts the greatest potential danger in the months of July and August, when our area experiences torrential downpours from thunderstorms which seem to come from out of the blue.

A heavy amount of precipitation within a short period of time is something we need to watch, such as those thunderstorms producing one-half inch or more of rain within 30 minutes to an hour’s time. 

Landslide vs. mudslide, debris flows, flash floods

Landslides are slow to evolve. Signs of trees bending, telephone poles, retaining walls or fences leaning are another indicator. Watch for new cracks or unusual bulges in the ground.

Mudslides, debris flows, and flash floods can transpire much faster. These are harder to predict and often occur with little warning.

By planning ahead, and knowing ahead of time how and where to access the heavy machinery, we can clear debris from the creek if needed. It would be much easier to clear than if there were to be a mudslide. If debris were to lodge against the bridge or take it out, the situation becomes much worse.

What the city and county are doing

“As a county and city we felt it important to let you know what we know,” said Gardner. 

Having done his homework, Gardner will apply for the F MAG (Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant) from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for $400,000. The application’s closing deadline is March 10.

“It will take a couple of months to be approved and a few months beyond that to receive the money,” Gardner explained. “We’re looking toward the fall, before we have the funds. Then we’ll restore, reforest, and replant, then worry about weeds, as they love that open ground.”

Traditionally, government assistance is designated for roads, bridges, courthouses, etc. “This is one of those rare grants which is actually permitted to be spent on private lands,” assured Gardner.

“From my perspective, I see no issues this winter,” said Gardner. “The roots are still intact, and soon new grasses and growth will help stabilize the hillside. Later, this summer, there will be some concern, but next year, next summer, we’re going to have to be vigilant. The good thing is we have time to think about how to deal with it.”

For now, NOAA Weather Radios were distributed to those at the greatest risk for weather coverage and severe storm alerts available 24/7.

The radio helps to keep people informed of severe storms in neighboring counties and can sometimes send a warning three-five hours ahead of the storm. Still for some systems it may only be 45 minutes. But 45 minutes still allows for time to evacuate. 

If you were unable to attend but live in an area at risk, please contact Don Gardner at the Clearwater County Office of Emergency Management at 2200 Michigan Ave. or call (208) 476-4064. 

What individuals can do…before

Be aware of your surroundings.

Have a plan before it is needed.

Inform neighbors of any potential hazards.

Notify the sheriff’s office where and with whom (contact number) you are staying, should it be necessary to self-evacuate.

Help a neighbor who may need special assistance.

Stay alert and awake. Many fatalities occur at night, when people are sleeping.

And after…

Plant trees, grasses and shrubs to help stabilize the soil.

Trees which have been burned and are not being harvested may be used by placing them horizontally on the hillside to catch or impede the speed of debris and rocks being washed down.

A word of caution to homeowners: “Flood insurance does not cover mud slides.”

Having a plan doesn’t always guarantee that things will go the way we would like them to, but it does make us think beforehand and allow extra time to prepare. Make and review your plan with your family and loved ones at least once a year.

Last summer, we watched half of our town go up in smoke, with nary a warning. Let’s use this information and this time to prepare whatever and wherever we can. Being ready and alert will make all the difference.

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