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White Mountain Apache tribe uses BAER to restore charred land

CIBECUE, Ariz. - Within days of the Rodeo-Chediski conflagration last July, the White Mountain Apache tribe requested federal help to develop a plan to restore lands devastated by the largest wildfire in state history.

The result was a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team, organized with the BIA fire management office. The special technical team of forestry specialists drawn from several government agencies is also known as an Interagency Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Team.

Hal Luedke from the BIA's southwest Albuquerque office headed the BAER team and it quickly addressed potential hazards.

"In our initial evaluation, we find that the amount of flooding in that burnt area will be larger and faster, so we have taken immediate action to help elevate that problem," said Luedke at a BAER team gathering in July. "My team is working with a multitude of specialized people to write a specific plan for this region."

The preparation of a BAER plan follows established guidelines. All work under BAER is derived from an approved handbook that is mostly a compilation of technical references. The plan must be in compliance with any applicable laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act and the Archeological Resources Protection Act, and it must adhere to stringent timelines. When completed, the BAER plan is a restricted document and is not readily released to the general public, due to sensitive information and sovereignty concerns. Individuals participating in the restoration are briefed on a need-to-know basis.

Indian Country Today was given a unique insight into the details of the BAER plan, gathered in a 4-inch binder and approved by the hierarchy of the Department of the Interior.

The BAER plan marks a three-year process for the White Mountain Apache tribe to restore the land. It allocates a $10 million budget. But funding can be flexible, depending on the need.

All of the information in the BAER plan was compiled by soil conservationists, foresters, geologists, natural resource personnel, hydrologists, archeologists and biologists, in cooperation with BIA officials and members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the local community.

The BAER plan segregated the affected areas into three basic categories, fire-related, suppression-related and watershed-related.

Fire-related damage included heat intensity, charring, soil integrity and fire-altered forests.

Suppression-related effects came from aggressive firefighting tactics such as the building of a dozer-line or hand-line, retardant drops, the establishment of fire camps and movement of fire crews and equipment from one location to another.

Watershed-related concerns addressed the elevated risks of increased water flow due to the decimation of soil, shrubs and trees.

The BAER team's initial mission was to prevent hazardous flooding in the Cibecue and Carrizo communities, which suffered from 75 percent watershed damage.

Watershed damage became a concern when trees and shrubs that normally absorb or capture water were destroyed in the fire. The fear was that heavy rain would cause massive flooding and mudflows into streambeds that would continue building speed until they reached the main river flowing into the downstream communities.

BAER team members conducted initial cleaning of storm drainages, posted various warning signs and most importantly, established an early flood-warning system through the Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS).

Today, 11 RAWS stand watch over the communities.

The BAER team installed another technical warning system, a stream gauging system located upstream of Cibecue. This system is set to alert residents and provide at least one hour of readiness to evacuate, when or if large waves should occur.

The late summer monsoon weather conjured thunderstorms. Carrizo was evacuated twice, but only as a precautionary measure. The black ash that washed down into the communities testified to the soil's fragile integrity.

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The BAER plan gave high regard to concerns of Apache elders and the tribal council about the Apache People's historical burial and sacred sites within the burnt areas.

The Fort Apache Historical Preservation office remained involved in marking and assessing sites from the time of the fire. Reportedly, BAER plan is deliberately vague in mentioning all known sites in order to protect their location.

During the wildfire, archeologists walked in front of bulldozers, flagging and identifying sites. Bulldozed firebreaks extended 122 miles throughout the reservation.

"There has been no study about the impact of the fire to the communities itself," said Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Welch, about the emotional stress endured by the Apache People. "These people have a multi-generation connection with the land. Their relationship to the land is right at the core of their being."

The White Mountain tribal boundaries start in rugged mountainous regions to the north and descend into an elevated desert to the south. Apache names identified the coveted beauty of most of this region's landscapes and streams. Apaches believe this prosperous forest and fruitful land deserves appreciation and respect. Finding a person who understood their values remained at the top of the tribal council's agenda in searching for an individual to lead the restoration when the BAER plan was completed.

A few months ago, the White Mountain Tribe hired Thomas R. Chacon, a retired 34-year veteran of forest management, as the BAER Coordinator/Implementation Leader for the Rodeo-Chediski fire complex.

"The plan is like a big puzzle, and it's just finding the right pieces to fit," said Chacon, while on a recent drive with Indian Country Today to visit a damaged area of the Chediski wildfire. "This is a dynamic plan. I have to expend it, amend it, monitor it, massage it ? in order for this plan to work for the land."

The BAER plan has a budget of millions, but Chacon is all too aware of the tribe's economic situation.

"There will need to be sufficient funds to make that piece of land come alive. It will be a challenge," said Chacon. "Money isn't everything, but it helps for sufficient funding to be there."

On this visit, the land lay silent.

At what was the right flank of the Chediski wildfire, daylight revealed the erratic burn pattern. Ponderosa pine trees, in drainage, remained untouched while further down the dirt road, other trees were victims of intense heat, and still others were green and alive.

The wildfire moved at its own discretion. Mountain ranges were black and bare. A skeleton of trees remains, but all are mortally wounded, unable to be recovered.

Chacon is all too familiar with the challenges of such vast restoration. He graciously accepts the difficulty of incorporating a working document such as the BAER plan into the reality of restoring the Apache lands to its original state.

For the most part, he will depend on the Apache People's guidance.

"The People are rising to the surface of developing the talents needed to manage their land," said Chacon of the tribal community members who remain an integral part of the rehab and restoration efforts. "I think they are identifying talent that they would not have known they had."

The selection of the BAER leader was a tough choice for the White Mountain tribal council, but at this early stage. Chacon has shown his potential.

"He's been in this country before and therefore, he is familiar with this land," said Massey who praised Chacon's previous experience and heavily relies on his advice on the current status of the lands. "Tom knows how to treat lands that have been damaged by fire and he has become the forefront to ensuring the plan and work is compatible."

The White Mountain tribe's journey to restoration and recovery begins.