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After the Fire: Resources for Recovery

After the Fire: Resources for Recovery

Wildfires can take a tragic toll on the people and landscapes affected. In Oregon, fire plays an important role in many native ecosystems. In fact, prescribed fire can be a valuable management tool to restore and maintain healthy and productive plant communities.  Unplanned and unmanaged wildfires, however, can have catastrophic impacts on our communities and forests.  Winter rains following wildfires may bring additional hazards, such as flooding and landslides to already fire-damaged watersheds.


If you are a landowner who has been affected by a catastrophic wildfire, the most important thing you can do after the fire is to ensure the safety of yourself and the public. Then, evaluate any potential risks and protect your property from further harm.  Once you have addressed the immediate safety concerns, it’s time to stabilize the soil and to start thinking about recovery.  The information below can serve as a starting point to guide you through the process.
 

Personal and Public Safety

It is important after a wildfire to ensure your own personal safety and the safety of the public. Walk your property and look for safety issues along property boundaries, roads and buildings. Check for the following:

1.  Are there fire damaged trees within one tree height of your home, other structures or access roads? If so, refer to the Forest Service publication: Postfire Assessment of Tree Status.  If cutting/removing hazardous trees, leave stumps in place.  The tree roots will continue to hold the soil for several years while they decompose. This is especially important near streams and rivers. 

2. After a fire, the risk of flash floods, debris and mud flows is much greater. Consider the following to evaluate your flooding risks:

  • How close is your house and/or outbuilding to the closest stream/river, seasonal draws or valley bottoms (floodplains?)
  • Could your home become inaccessible? Do you have a bridge or culvert, stream or drainage crossing that could be destroyed by a flash flood?

Manage your risk and protect your property

If your home survived the wildfire, it may still be at risk of post-fire flooding or debris flows. Consider the following questions and steps to manage your risk and protect your property:

1. Are there National Weather Service rain gauges in your watershed? If so, is there an emergency alert system associated with them?
2. Contact your insurance agent or FEMA about The National Flood Insurance Program even if you are out of the 100-year flood plain. The following websites provide additional information:

3. Remove debris in and near culverts and cross drains. This includes rocks, decking, structures, vegetation, fences across draws, etc.
4. When walking your property, look for items that may potentially plug stream channels and/or culverts, particularly at road crossings.
5. Additional runoff may cause channels to shift, creating additional streambank erosion.
6. Secure any outdoor items. Move lawn furniture, barbecues, pool covers, etc. inside.
7. Identify sources of surface runoff onto property and around your house.
8. Evaluate plant debris (e.g. duff, leaves, limbs and tree trunks) left on-site.  If debris is not close to streams and rivers where it may contribute to flooding hazards (items 3 and 4 above) and is not in excess for forest stand fuel loads, consider leaving it to help stabilize soils and intercept runoff.  This debris can help reduce rainfall splash erosion and intercept some sheet and rill erosion.
 

Vegetation and Soil Recovery

After a wildfire, it may appear as if the flames have destroyed all vegetation. Loss of vegetation not only affects its use for livestock feed and wildlife cover but is one of the most important factors influencing soil erosion by wind and water. Vegetation and duff/litter helps control erosion by shielding the soil from the impact of raindrops, slowing the volume and velocity of runoff, and mitigating impacts from wind.

The key is not to overreact.  Many landowners may be left with the fear that vegetation will not return unless it is re-seeded.  However, in all but the most extreme cases, plants are likely still alive and will recover. In most cases, soil is very effective at insulating plant roots from the heat of fires.  Unless the fire severity is very high, seeds on the soil surface will also remain present and viable.  Very quickly after a fire, you may notice some herbaceous plants “greening-up” and recovering on the landscape. Factors that affect recovery time after wildfire include types of plants and their adaptation to fire, fire intensity, precipitation (before and after the fire), soil type, previous history of grazing and fire, presence of weeds (competition), season of fire and current management.

Fire has played a key role in the development of Oregon’s plant communities and native plants will generally respond favorably to fire. Non-native vegetation, such as pasture and hay-land plants, will generally be fine as well.  Most trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses have mechanisms for coping with fire. Some plants will grow new leaves and some will sprout from their roots, while other plants have fire resistant seeds that will germinate following a fire.  Many woody plants have thick bark and may be minimally affected by light to moderate fire.

Although vegetation will generally recover following low to moderate severity fire, high severity fire can denude or kill vegetation and cause the soil in your area to become unstable and prone to erosion. Soil erosion can cause a significant increase in sediment and debris delivery to streams. A high rate of erosion can cause streams to fill in, reducing their ability to pass flood water.
You can assess forest tree mortality on your land using this US Forest Service publication: Post-fire Assessment of Tree Status.

Federal agencies complete soil burn severity maps as part of Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) efforts within the perimeters of major fires.  You may assess soil burn severity on your own land using this U.S Forest Service publication - Field guide for mapping post-fire soil burn severity.

The United States Forest Service uses the definitions below to define soil burn severity: 

High soil burn severity:  All, or nearly all, of the pre-fire ground cover and surface organic matter (litter, duff, and fine roots) has been consumed, and charring may be visible on larger roots.  Soil is often gray, orange or reddish at the ground surface where large fuels were concentrated or consumed.

Moderate soil burn severity:  Up to 80% of the pre-fire ground cover (litter and ground fuels) may be consumed, but generally not all of it.  There may be potential for recruitment of effective ground cover from scorched needles or leaves remaining in the canopy that will soon fall to the ground.  Soil structure is generally unchanged.

Low soil burn severity:  The ground surface, including any exposed mineral soil, may appear lightly charred and the canopy and understory vegetation will likely appear green.

Very low or unburned: Little to no burn effects expected within these areas. Canopy and ground litter completely intact. Little to no vegetative mortality expected.

Insect Infestation Protection

Insect infestations in the fire-killed and fire-stressed trees are a hazard.  Three things you can do to reduce the chances of a post-fire insect infestation are:

  1. Remove or make sure woody slash is dried out.
  2. If clumps of live trees are overstocked, thin them.
  3. Remove the most damaged trees and leave the best.

Post-fire Seeding

If areas were not severely burned or disturbed, the pre-burn herbaceous cover will generally recover to protect the soil without costly seeding operations. Where fire severity was high, loss of vegetative and duff cover may be extreme with increased risk of soil erosion and weed infestations.  Sometimes, soils become hydrophobic and won’t allow infiltration of water.  Short of ripping and combining the soil layers, there is little that we can do to remediate this condition, however, this will naturally dissipate within about a year following fire. 

Bare soil areas should be assessed to determine whether reseeding and/or mulching is needed and practical. Also, seeding may be needed where fire activities have left areas severely disturbed, such as bulldozed fire lines.  Seeds need ample warmth and moisture to germinate and establish.  If the expectation for a seeding is to establish immediate cover prior to the winter eroding rains, seeding should occur as early in the fall as possible (ideally prior to mid-October) and while soil temperatures are still warm enough for seeds to germinate and establish.  Erosion-control postfire seeding will often involve seeding of quick-germinating annual species such as annual ryegrass, barley, winter wheat, or sterile hybrid grains (such as Regreen or QuickGuard)., to establish roots and hold the soil in at least the first year following fire.  If the expectation for seeding is to establish longer-term permanent cover, then seeding can occur during fall (most beneficial for the westside of Oregon) through early spring.  Winter or dormant seeding should occur in areas on the eastside of Oregon and where winter snow-cover is typical.  Seed placed during late fall or winter will germinate and establish when soil temperatures become warm enough (spring) for seeds to germinate.  This late seeding will generally be ineffective in reducing erosion during the first winter following fire (the most erosion prone period) but may be valuable in establishing permanent perennial cover (where it has been lost) and reducing weed invasions.
 

Post-fire Soil Conservation Measures

NRCS recommends several practices and treatments that can help to keep soil in place and not in your streams.  Consider especially implementing the immediate activities that will stabilize soils and reduce erosion (straw bales and wattles, mulching).  Links are provided for associated fire fact sheets for landowners.  The following treatments can help to protect your erodible soil:

Assistance After Wildfire

The information provided is meant to assist you as you make decisions following a wildfire. The impacts of wildfire will vary in each situation as will the course of action and management needed following the wildfire. 

For further assistance in evaluating your land and planning practices to address concerns following a wildfire, contact your local NRCS field office, your local Soil and Water Conservation Service Office, Oregon Cooperative Extension Service Office and/or Oregon Department of Forestry.