Fire and forest specialists have started the long process of repairing and rehabilitating the areas damaged by the Schneider Springs Fire.

The fire 18 miles northwest of Naches was the largest on the landscape in Washington this year, Department of Natural Resources fire information officer Ryan Rodruck said.

The fire has burned 107,404 acres, an area more than six times the size of the city of Yakima, according to fire reports. Closure orders were scaled back last week to only include the area of the fire. Bumping Lake Road is open, but some spurs from it remain closed.

Cooler temperatures and fall rains have slowed the fire growth in recent weeks. Fire officials say some parts of the fire will continue to burn and produce smoke until the first snow, but many sections of the fire’s footprint are no longer active. The fire was reported to be 86% contained Oct. 5.

The repair process in the aftermath of a wildfire is broken into three stages: fire suppression repair, emergency stabilization and long-term rehabilitation.

Repairing fire lines

The first stage of repair focuses on damage caused by fire crews.

To stop the progression of wildfire toward critical values, fire crews connect areas that are empty of fuels, making a line the fire is unlikely to cross. These lines can include existing breaks, like roads or waterways. But in many areas, firefighters have to build lines by hand or with dozers, digging up grass, shrubs and other fuels in the fire’s path.

“The fire is messy, and we make a big mess putting it out,” Rodruck said.

The result is a dirt path that runs around the perimeter of the fire area. Once the line is complete, the fire is considered contained, engine lead Jeff Delarosa said.

Crews then do a mop-up, he said, cooling hot and burning areas within a certain distance of the lines. After the mop-up, the fire is classified as controlled, he said.

That’s when the repair work can begin.

Dozer and hand lines can damage the landscape if they are left untouched, Delarosa said, especially in mountainous regions.

The landscape is stripped of vegetation that holds the dirt in place, making the area susceptible to erosion.

A fire engine crew assigned to the Schneider Springs Fire worked to repair a series of dozer lines Tuesday on the south edge of the fire near Maloy Road.

The crew moved rocks, sticks, branches and other debris to cover the dozer line carved down the slope.

They also dug a water bar — a horizontal, downward-sloping notch in the dirt that will carry any flowing water off the dozer line and into the untouched landscape. The water bar helps prevent erosion from rain or melting snow that would otherwise carry the dirt straight down the slope.

“We don’t want to turn dozer lines into a river,” Delarosa said.

He said the repair process has other benefits, too — it keeps the public from using the lines as roads once the area is open for recreational use.

“It also helps us build familiarity with dozer lines,” he said.

If there is another fire in the area in the future, the crews will know where these lines are and can uncover them, he said.

The crew has repaired about 5 miles of dozer line in the last two weeks, Delarosa said. He emphasized that the fire crews repair only the damage left by firefighters.

“We don’t rehab things destroyed by the fire,” he said.

Rehabilitation and repairs in the burned area are left to interagency teams staffed with specialists and full-time employees.

Assessing threats

Assessments of burned areas at the Schneider Springs Fire begin last week, with specialists entering the field Monday, according to Jess Clark, the interagency coordinator for Burned Area Emergency Response.

This is the second phase of fire repair and focuses on areas burned by the fire.

BAER is a U.S. Forest Service program that assesses emergency threats to three different areas of values in the wake of a fire: natural resources, cultural resources and infrastructure.

The biggest threats to burned areas east of the Cascades are flooding and debris flow, Clark said. The slopes are geologically active and have some movement without fire, he said.

“It’s just part of the naturally occurring process,” he said. “Then, when you add fire into the mixture, removing the vegetation that generally holds things in place, you just speed up that process.”

Water and debris can threaten human life and infrastructure, Clark said. They can fell damaged trees, take out bridges, or damage roads, trails and campsites.

Another concern is the impact of ash and dust runoff in the water supply and fisheries in the Yakima Valley, he said.

“Those kinds of assessments are what we look at first,” Clark said.

Interagency teams enter the fire area, often while parts of the fire are still burning, to determine the burn severity and assign treatments, Clark said. The teams include specialists from the Forest Service, Washington DNR, the Geological Survey and the National Weather Service, among others.

Clark described Schneider Springs as a “mosaic” burn, with high-severity areas butting up to moderate- or low-severity areas. The burn across the 100,000 acres isn’t uniform, he said.

A common treatment the teams recommend in the burned area is a temporary closure, according to Clark. The closures will be specific to a trail or camping area, not to the entire fire area, he said.

“We realize that no one likes closures,” he said. “In some cases, a temporary closure might be the safest, most cost-effective and smartest.”

Other treatments may include installing erosion control devices, drainage features, barriers or warning signs. The teams may also recommend planting for emergency stabilization or removing damaged trees.

The public can see updates on BAER progress at the Schneider Springs Fire on InciWeb.

Long-term rehabilitation

The third stage of fire repair will be done by local land managers in the years after the fire, Clark said.

“Rehabilitation is done over the next number of years to try and stabilize even more and recover the environment to a more desirable state after the fire effects have calmed down,” he said.

The Schneider Springs Fire burned on a variety of land types, including those owned by the Forest Service, Washington DNR and private owners.

Long-term rehabilitation will be up to those individual agencies, Clark said.

DNR information officer Rodruck said the state has been putting an emphasis on hiring full-time employees. The hirees can focus on fire during fire season and forest health treatments in the off-season, he said.

Having personnel available year-round will help with the rehabilitation process, he said.

More updates about long-term rehabilitation strategies at the Schneider Springs Fire will be available once the fire is out and the emergency repair work is completed, officials said.

Contact Kate Smith at katesmith@yakimaherald.com.

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