Fire-Ravaged Southwest Prepares For Rainy Season

Teams of firefighters and disaster management officials are going into already-burned areas of the Southwest to figure out how to prevent flooding now that the rainy season is beginning. They're looking for debris that's blocking streams — and for areas now devoid of trees that held together the soil.

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For NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

For weeks now, the story from the Southwest has been fires, wildfires that destroyed homes and business, forced evacuations and consumed thousands of acres of land. Crews are working day and night to contain them.

But even as the fires are brought under control, another threat looms, as NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Arizona.

TED ROBBINS: Tom Beatty and his family run a guest ranch in Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Guests come to hike, watch hummingbirds, and pick apples from the Beattys' orchard.

Mr. TOM BEATTY (Owner, Beatty's Miller Canyon Guest Ranch): During the dry season, I'm pretty busy watering trees. Of course, now I don't have to water trees too much. They're all dead.

(Soundbite of leaves crunching)

ROBBINS: Now, it's crunchy underfoot as we step on charred leaves and dried apples in what's left of the orchard after the Monument fire roared through here a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. BEATTY: We had 50-mile-an-hour winds that day it came through here, so we had spot fires landing in the orchard and taking out our apple trees.

ROBBINS: The day the fire came, he and his dad saved their homes and an old cabin with only the water from a pond.

Mr. BEATTY: Me and my dad stayed behind. All the forest service guys ran out because that's what the safety mandate is for them. Because we stopped that one and we stopped the two telephone poles from going up. They had fire on the bottom of them, and it was going to cut them off at the knee.

ROBBINS: With a hose?

Mr. BEATTY: With buckets, five-gallon buckets.

ROBBINS: Beatty figures they'll have to plant 500 apple trees a year for the next 3 years to restart the orchard. But that's not what comes next.

Mr. BEATTY: Well, the flooding is next.

ROBBINS: That's right. After the fire, the floods. The fire was driven by high winds which ignited dry shrubs, brush and grass. Now, hydrologist Casey Shannon says it has gone from too much vegetation to none.

Mr. CASEY SHANNON (Hydrologist): With a heavy rain event, you're going to have nothing to slow down the rainfall or runoff. And the soil is not intact and, you know, it's not being held together by the vegetation any longer.

ROBBINS: And in this part of the Southwest, the summer monsoon is just starting. Tropical storms from the south with torrential downpours, up to a couple of inches of rain in an hour - if that happens and the rain picks up ash from the bare mountainside, it means trouble.

Gerry Gonzalez is with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Mr. GERRY GONZALEZ: When you get that ash, it changes the viscosity of the water and it gives it that bulldozer power and so all these boulders come down. And so it has a lot of impact.

ROBBINS: The debris gathers power as it flows into washes, then streams, then rivers below the mountains.

Mr. GONZALEZ: And what are the possibilities that it's going to jump out of the channel because of the sediment load, and go to areas where there's - it will be a threat to life for a lot of folks down there.

ROBBINS: So soil scientists, botanists, wildlife specialists and hydrologists are rushing to figure out what to do and where to do it. They've formed what's called the Burned Area Emergency Response or BAER team. Crews have already helped Tom Beatty dig a trench on his property to handle runoff. Now, he's just hoping when rain comes, it'll be light and steady.

Mr. BEATTY: ...it will run at all. But if we get a couple inches, it'll definitely run and just cut across through our trench and into the creek. And we'll be ready with sandbags across the road to just direct it right in the creek.

ROBBINS: Downstream, a hundred culverts which carry water need to be cleared of debris. Helicopters need to drop mulch mixed with grass seed. That will create almost instant ground cover, which can hold the soil and slow the flow. At the bottom of the mountains, homeowners need to sandbag their property and brace for the worst - a possible river of ash, charred wood and boulders.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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