Aerial mulching planned for King fire burn area

A week after the King fire began in September, a hillside was scorched and exposed to erosion in Pollock Pines.
A week after the King fire began in September, a hillside was scorched and exposed to erosion in Pollock Pines.

Helicopters will drop mulch on fire-damaged areas to prevent erosion where the King fire roared in September, scorching vast swaths of forestland.

The so-called “helimulching” of 1,200 acres is scheduled to begin Monday and is expected to be completed in about two weeks. It is hoped that a layer of rice straw that will be dropped by the choppers will prevent soil erosion. Excessive runoff sediment after a fire from can lead to flooding, road closures, poor water quality, decreased water storage capacity and loss of hydroelectric generation.

The project is being mounted by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the U.S. Forest Service. The service has used the procedure for many years, said Grant Nelson, SMUD’s King fire recovery project manager.

“They find it to be the most effective treatment for large areas,” he said.

The King fire, which began Sept. 13 in El Dorado County, was contained after nearly a month, burning 97,717 acres and destroying 12 homes. Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, was accused of setting the fire and charged. He has pleaded not guilty.

After the fire, members of the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team, or BAER, assessed the immediate dangers. Members include botanists, hydrologists and geologists.

BAER officials said at the time that possible mudslides were a major concern, because fire causes the top layer to lose the fungi, bacteria and other organic material that hold it together and allow it to absorb water. When that happens, rain runs through soil and tears it down instead of percolating into the earth.

The mulching effort is meant to protect Eleven Pines Road, a major route from Highway 50 to the northern end of the federal forest, and the Brush Creek and Slab Creek reservoirs. The reservoirs are important to SMUD’s hydroelectric facilities.

The effort will have significant environmental benefits, preventing 25 tons of sedimentation that would reach the American River if it were not done, Nelson said.

“The sediment would fill in all the nice pools that the trout like,” Nelson said.

During the aerial operation, large bales of weedfree straw from California rice fields will be loaded into grinders that will chop the straw into pieces about 6 inches long. Two helicopters will drop the mulch onto slopes with 15 to 60 percent grade.

About 80 acres a day will be covered with the erosion-preventing straw by each helicopter.

Trucks loaded with the rice straw will pass through Georgetown to mulching sites off Eleven Pines Road, southwest of the Ellicot Bridge. The first areas to be see helicopter drops will be along Eleven Pines Road.

The effort is being mounted before heavy winter rain or snow.

Nelson said that the fire burned over 60,000 acres of Eldorado National Forest land. The Forest Service has identified 6,000 acres that need the mulch.

“We would like to see funding come forward for addressing additional mulching of this 6,000 acres,” Nelson said.

Call The Bee’s Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079.