Erosion Threat Assessment Reduction Team (ETART) is a multijurisdictional, interdisciplinary team formed jointly by FEMA and the State of Washington in response to the 2014 Central Washington wildfires to address the threat of flooding, mudslides, debris flows and other erosion over the approximately 415 square miles of burned lands.(For a landownership breakdown, see the following map and chart.)
In the summer of 2014, the Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 250,000 acres of land in Washington, the largest wildfire in state history. The fire burned private, federal, state and tribal lands, consumed 300 homes and destroyed critical infrastructure in its path. Then intense rainstorms over the scarred landscape caused more damage from flooding, mudslides and debris flow.
Fire suppression costs topped $68 million. But post-fire recovery costs have yet to be tallied.Given the size and severity of the fire, President Obama issued a major disaster declaration on Aug. 11, which authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate federal disaster relief and to help state, tribal and local agencies recover from the disaster.
Once firefighters contained the Carlton fire on Aug. 25, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) deployed its Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team to measure soil quality, assess watershed changes, identify downstream risks and develop recommendations to treat burned federal lands.FEMA officials and the BAER team acted fast. They knew more floods may follow without vegetation to soak up rainwater. More silt and debris in the runoff can plug culverts and raise water levels, which may further threaten downstream communities and properties.
To reduce the vulnerability of those downstream communities, FEMA created ETART. Modeled after BAER, ETART would measure soil quality, assess watershed changes, identify downstream risks and develop recommendations to treat burned state, tribal and private lands.FEMA and the State of Washington recruited biologists, engineers, hydrologists, mapping experts, range specialists, soil scientists and support staff from more than 17 entities.
SPIRIT OF COOPERATIONETART participants include: Cascadia Conservation District, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, FEMA, Methow Conservancy, National Weather Service (NWS), Okanogan Conservation District, Skagit Conservation District, Spokane Conservation District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of the Interior, USFS, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Whatcom Conservation District and Yakama Nation Fisheries.
Team members scored the benefits of working together across jurisdictional boundaries and overlapping authorities right away. To start, they stitched their maps together and overlaid their findings to gain consistency and a better perspective. Field assessments used extensive soil sampling. Computer modeling showed the probability of debris flow and other hazards.Standard fixes in their erosion control toolbox include seeding and other ground treatments, debris racks, ditch protection, temporary berms, low-water crossings and sediment retention basins. Suggested treatments were evaluated based on their practical and technical feasibility.
Regional conservation districts provided a vital and trusted link to private landowners. They:
• held public meetings and acted as the hub of communications
• posted helpful links on their websites
• collected information on damage to crops, wells, fences, livestock and irrigation systems
• secured necessary permits that grant state and federal workers access to private property to assess conditions.
Note: Teams found a few positive consequences of the wildfire. For instance, debris flow delivered more wood and gravel downstream, which may create a better fish habitat once the debris and sediment settle. The resultant bedload may enhance foraging, spawning and nesting for endangered species, such as Steelhead, Bull Trout and Spring Chinook Salmon.STRENGTH OF COLLECTIVE ACTION
Final reports from BAER and ETART have helped several state agencies formulate and prioritize their projects, and leverage their budget requests for more erosion control funds.Landowners and managers might share equipment, gain economies of scale and develop more cost-effective solutions. In the end, collaboration and collective action may avert future flooding.
CULTURE OF RESILIENCEWhile public health and safety remain the top priority, other values at risk include property, natural resources, fish and wildlife habitats, as well as cultural and heritage sites.
Estimated costs for the emergency restoration and recovery recommendations on federal lands run $1.5 million. For short-term stabilization, USFS initiated funding requests for seeding and mulching urgent areas before the first snowfall. Other suggested treatments include bigger culverts, more warning signs and the improvement of road drainage systems.For state and private lands, emergency restoration and recovery recommendations may cost in excess of $2.8 million. Erosion controls include seeding, invasive species removal and the construction of berms and barriers. In its final report, ETART also recommended better early warning systems, more warning signs on county roads and electronic message signs to aid residents evacuating via highways.
Landowners, managers and agencies continue to search for funding to pay for implementation. For instance, BLM regulations may allow it to seed its lands, as well as adjoining properties, after a wildfire. Select state agencies may provide seedlings, technical assistance on tree salvaging, or partial reimbursement for pruning, brush removal and weed control.Knowing a short period of moderate rainfall on burned areas can lead to flash floods, the NWS placed seven real-time portable gauges in September to monitor rainfall in and around the area, and plans to place eight more rain gauges in the coming weeks. The NWS will issue advisory Outlooks, Watches and Warnings, which will be disseminated to the public and emergency management personnel through the NWS Advanced Weather Information Processing System.
Certain projects may qualify for FEMA Public Assistance funds. Under this disaster declaration, FEMA will reimburse eligible tribes, state agencies, local governments and certain private nonprofits in Kittitas and Okanogan counties for 75 percent of the cost of eligible emergency protective measures.Successful ETARTs replicated in the future may formalize interagency memorandums of understanding, develop more comprehensive community wildfire protection plans and promote even greater coordination of restoration and recovery activities following major wildfires.