Firefighters help charred forest heal, prevent erosion

Sunday, July 21, 2002

WEST CREEK, Colo. -- "Rakers, go!" squad boss Shawn Walker shouted.

Behind a single-file line of a half-dozen firefighters with rakes, Jered Hogansen, 20, slowly cranked out 25 pounds of grass seed from a red bucket strapped above his belly.

Walker's squad was among about 60 firefighters working Thursday in a $24.8 million effort to prevent erosion, protect water quality and protect soil on public forest land scarred by a massive wildfire.

"It's extremely boring and hot," said Michael Race, 29, of Eugene, Ore., whose job this day was raking.

"Most of us would rather be on a fire," Hogansen said. "But this goes hand-in-hand with our job."

The fire, the largest in state history, burned 137,760 acres southwest of Denver and left barren land covered with ash and charred debris that could choke creeks and rivers if a heavy rain comes.

Stripped of organic material, the ground has become like wax paper that causes water to bead and run, instead of soak in.

Already rains have changed some rugged slopes from chalky, ash-covered ground into rounded slopes of soft, orange and black mud. Some creeks below them are choked with debris.

On Thursday, firefighters were scraping away the waxy layer of soil and laying grass seed on top. The only sounds were the soft scraping of rakes and the whirring of cranking seeders.

While Walker's crew labors in Colorado, their home state of Oregon has about 15 major fires burning.

"We're firefighters and our state is burning," Walker said. "This is hard work to keep the morale of a 20-man crew up."

Nevertheless, the squad has helped do rehabilitation work on about 4,000 acres so far with the help of ground crews, planes and four-wheelers that can spread about 80 pounds of seed in 10 minutes. Cost and terrain dictate which technique is used.

About half of the fire area was moderately or severely burned -- land that is prime for rehabilitation. So far mulching is planned along 15 miles of roads and on about 25,000 badly burned acres.

Areas where trees still have needles left to fall are left alone. The fallen needles will become a sponge for water, with little need to reseed, said division supervisor Wayne Stone.


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