By Alla Jezmir

BridgeNews

KANSAS CITY (B)--The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it has seeded 20,000 acres of the most environmentally sensitive land burned in the Los Alamos area from the Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico.

Concurrently, other rehabilitation efforts are under way to assist the local community afflicted by four major fires in the region during the past few weeks.

The aftermath of the Cerro Grande disaster, which burned 47,650 acres of land and forced at least 18,000 residents of Los Alamos to evacuate, has heightened the possibility for storm flow runoff and flooding, particularly in severely burned watersheds.

"Our goal is to restore vegetation destroyed by the fire and take other needed emergency erosion control measures," said Dan Glickman, U.S. secretary of agriculture, in a press release. "We want to get ground cover growing quickly to help protect the land."

The Cerro Grande Fire damaged more than 9,000 acres of non-federal land, including 6,681 of pasture range land in Santa Clara Pueblo, 708 of the Baca Ranch and 294 in San-Ildefonso Pueblo, according to the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team Report issued by USDA's Forest Service.

"The idea for us right now is emergency assistance," said Betty Joubert, public affairs specialist at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "We're trying to get some grass growing and are putting up erosion-control structures that could be as simple as a straw bail."

The aerial seeding, the implementation step of a three-fold restoration effort also encompassing home-owner assistance and volunteer mobilization, ensued as a collaborative project between U.S. federal agencies and the local community. Supplying 750,000 pounds of native grass and small grain seeds, NRCS provided $1.2 million in technical and financial assistance under the Emergency Watershed Protection program. The Forest Service contributed a helicopter and five planes for the relief initiative.

"Our main concern is that the monsoon season is coming," Joubert said. "Our efforts are going to take emergency erosion-control measures so that when the rains come, the mountain doesn't come down. There's nothing to hold down the soil where the trees used to be."

During the past four weekends, more than 1,500 volunteers from the community toiled in other fire-stricken regions to break up hydrophobic soil--soil so severely damaged that it can no longer freely absorb moisture.

Other residents readily worked alongside several hundred firefighters in restoration activities. Volunteer crews performed tasks ranging from raking, seeding and mulching to establishing log-erosion barriers, removing hazardous trees and rehabilitating local roads.

In addition to the Cerro Grande Fire, the Cree Fire left barren more than 8,000 acres of land; the Scott Able ruined 16,000; Manuelitas damaged 1,400; and Viv eash destroyed 29,000. Thirty-seven million trees and 439 residential homes perished in the process.

"We've had many people say it's a healing process to bring back the grass," Joubert said. "They are working at elevations of 7000 to 8000 feet--the fires occurred in the mountains for the most part. These are tough conditions, but they want to do it."

NRC recently launched a disaster assistance center in Los Alamos to aid private landowners, Indian Pueblos and local governments affected by the catastrophe. Engineers and conservationists stand ready to provide technical assistance on erosion-control measures and types of vegetation that can be used to reduce soil erosion and flooding. Landowners also may obtain guidance on these measures through workshops conducted by the Cerro Grande EWP response team or on a walk-in basis at the center.

The Forest Service, in cooperation with state and federal organizations, will hold a Firewise Community Forum in Los Alamos later in June. Intending to hinder future risk of fire, the forum will concentrate on how to rebuild or modify surviving structures and property.

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