Reseeding operation launched


Last updated 10/29/2002 at Noon

The legacy of this summer's wildfires continued last week, as an emergency fire rehabilitation crew labored to protect severely burned slopes of the Eyerly fire north of Sisters to reduce the threat of soil erosion.

More than 900 bags of winter wheat and annual rye totaling 47,000 pounds were seeded by helicopter onto steep and remote drainages of Spring and Street Creek above Lake Billy Chinook. The plants are expected to persist for three to five years and then die out, acting as a "nurse crop" for native plants recolonizing the area.

The project required a complex dance of aviation skill, planning, ground support, and attention to safety.

A powerful Jet Ranger B-3 Helicopter from Henderson Aviation of Junction City worked in orchestration with the Prineville Interagency Helitack crew and Sisters Ranger District personnel to accomplish the work.

Ace pilot Brad Larsen impressed observers with his precision flying, which required up to 20 landings and takeoffs a day with a dangling seeding bucket loaded with 500 pounds of seed.

Each landing required a careful sequence in which the pilot landed the bucket on the helispot, then gingerly maneuvered the helicopter to the ground without tangling in a confusion of hanging cables. With rotor wash whipping the air, the support crew quickly approached the ship in single file, emptied heavy bags of seed into the apparatus, then retreated to a safety zone.

Leaning out the doorless ship, Larsen repeated the sequence in reverse, watching cables as the helicopter slowly lifted off the ground and the bucket became airborne before he roared off over the blackened treetops.

Helicopters and people can be a dangerous combination.

During initial safety briefings Larsen matter-of-factly explained where he would try to crash the helicopter if he lost power during takeoff so crews could establish safety zones to avoid that area.

"Then come find me and hopefully I'll just be mad and brushing off my flight suit," he said.

After two days of work, a mechanical difficulty with the ship required a Long Ranger L3 helicopter to be flown in from the Willamette Valley. The disabled Jet Ranger is at Sisters Airport awaiting repairs.

Thirty-year helicopter veteran George Yocom and co-foreman Josh Schraeder oversaw the safety of ground support. Schraeder explained a tremendous amount of thought goes into each mission to ensure everyone goes home well at the end of the day.

"It's like working under a giant running lawn mower," he said. "What's not dangerous about helicopters?'

It's a legitimate question. Something as innocent as an empty seed bag released into the whipping rotors or a tangled bucket cable could mean disaster.

"But I enjoy the challenge," Schraeder said. "You see how much planning goes into it, thinking about everything that could go wrong, trying to anticipate it, mitigate the risks, and eliminate those that could cause accidents."

Seeding projects such as this one were once routinely prescribed after wildfires, but these days seeding is done only in specific situations with high risk of soil loss.

The team of Burned Area Rehab experts which evaluated the Eyerly Fire determined that approximately one third of the area burned at a high enough intensity to turn top soil layers, plant roots, and seeds to ash.

A long recovery period will be required to regrow vegetation that will hold the soil in place. It is estimated that in the severely burned areas up to five tons of soil per acre could erode and wash down steep hillsides into the Metolius River, Lake Billy Chinook and Perry South campground.

In contrast, the watershed of the Cache Mountain fire near Black Butte Ranch was predicted to recover ground vegetation rapidly on its own and has low risk of severe soil loss because the more porous soils absorb water easily. Only small scattered areas burned hot enough to cause soil damage.

No seeding is planned for Cache Mountain.

Sisters Ranger District personnel have been working since the smoke cleared to prepare the Eyerly area for winter snows, spring snow melt, and next summer's rain storms. Roads have been armored for increased runoff with larger culverts, drain dips and ditches.

Thousands of burned trees have been dropped across slopes in steep draws to slow water and soil flows. In concert with the seeding, these measures are predicted by the rehab planning team to have a 70-80 percent probability of success in reducing catastrophic slides into local waters.

To test that prediction, Deschutes National Forest Hydrologists and an Oregon State University graduate student, Shelly Moore, are busy installing sediment fences in rehab areas. This device measures soil erosion and will help the Forest Service understand whether certain combinations of rehab measures are more effective than others.

Learning from the fires of 2002 will continue for decades.

The rehab activities have also been a training opportunity for college students like Sisters locals Garrett Brink and Nate Goodwin.

The two assisted the helitack crew in ferrying seed and their work in rehab tree felling provided them with intimate knowledge of the burned area.

Brink flew an orientation flight with the helicopter to point out key landmarks to the pilot. In spite of having to help lift over 900 seed bags, Goodwin said he enjoyed the exposure to helitack work

"Its been a great experience," he said. "This is the first time I've gotten to work around helicopters and that's cool. I've learned you can't be too careful."

Maret Pajutee is a Sisters Ranger District Ecologist.


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