Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Limitations
While many wildfires cause minimal damage to the land and pose few threats to the land or people downstream, some fires result in damage that requires special efforts to reduce impacts afterwards. Loss of vegetation exposes soil to erosion; water run-off may increase and cause flooding, soil and rock may move downstream and damage property or fill reservoirs putting community water supplies and endangered species at-risk.
The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program is designed to identify and manage potential risks to resources on National Forest System lands and reduce these threats through appropriate emergency measures to protect human life and safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources. BAER is an emergency program for stabilization work that involves time-critical activities to be completed before the first damaging storm event to meet program objectives.
Determine whether imminent post-wildfire threats to human life and safety, property, and critical natural or cultural resources on National Forest System lands exist and take immediate actions, as appropriate, to manage the unacceptable risks.
If emergency conditions are identified, mitigate significant threats to health, safety, human life, property and values-at-risk.
Prescribe emergency response actions to stabilize and prevent unacceptable degradation to natural and cultural resources, to minimize threats to life or property resulting from the effects of a fire, or to repair/replace/construct physical improvements necessary to prevent degradation of land or resources.
Implement emergency response actions to help stabilize soil; control water, sediment and debris movement and potentially reduce threats to the BAER values identified above when an analysis shows that planned actions are likely to reduce risks substantially within the first year following containment of the fire.
Monitor the implementation and effectiveness of emergency treatments that were applied on National Forest System lands.
BAER Interagency Coordination:
Multiple agencies work with the BAER team and look at the full scope and scale of the situation to reduce the potential threats to human life and property; however, BAER treatments cannot prevent all of the potential flooding or soil erosion impacts, especially after a wildfire-changed landscape. It is important for the public to stay informed and prepared for potentially dramatic increased run-off events.
One of the most effective BAER strategies is interagency coordination with local cooperators who assist affected businesses, homes, and landowners prepare for rain events. The Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) work together and coordinate with local agencies such as Resource Conservation Districts (RCD) and counties that assist landowners with preparing for potential run-off. It is important that landowners work directly with NRCS and other agencies to determine appropriate actions needed to protect structures and other assets.
BAER assessment plans and implementation of the BAER emergency actions are a cooperating and coordinated effort between many federal agencies such as the Forest Service, NRCS, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Weather Service, also including state, tribal governments, local agencies, and emergency management departments. It is important that BAER coordinates its assessment and treatment implementation with all affected and interested cooperating agencies and organizations regarding other post-fire recovery and restoration efforts.
BAER assessment teams are staffed by specially trained professionals that may include: hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists, botanists, archeologists, and others who evaluate the burned area and prescribe temporary emergency stabilization actions on National Forest System lands to protect the land quickly and effectively. BAER assessments usually begin before a wildfire has been fully contained.
A BAER assessment team conducts field surveys and uses science-based models to rapidly evaluate and assess the burned area and prescribe emergency stabilization measures. The team generates a “Soil Burn Severity” map by using satellite imagery which is then validated and adjusted by BAER team field surveys to assess watershed conditions and model potential watershed response from the wildfire. The map identifies areas of soil burn severity by categories of low/unburned, moderate, and high which may correspond to a projected increase in watershed response. The higher the burn severity, the less the soil will be able to absorb water when it rains. Without absorption, there will be increased run-off with the potential of flooding.
The BAER team presents these findings in an assessment report that identifies immediate and emergency actions needed to address post-fire risks to human life and safety, property, cultural and critical natural resources. This includes early detection and rapid response (EDRR) treatments to prevent the spread of noxious weeds into native plant communities. The BAER report describes watershed pre- and post-fire watershed response information, areas of concern for life and property, and recommended short-term emergency stabilization measures for Forest Service lands that burned.
In most cases, only a portion of the burned area is actually treated. Severely burned areas steep slopes, and places where water run-off will be excessive and may impact important resources, are focus areas and described in the BAER assessment report if they affect values-at-risk. Time is critical if the emergency stabilization measures are to be effective.
There are a variety of emergency stabilization actions that the BAER team can recommend for Forest Service land such as: mulching with agricultural straw or chipped wood, digging of below-grade pits to store sediment, and other treatments to keep roads and bridges from washing-out during floods, are but a couple of examples. The BAER team also assesses if there is a need to modify drainage structures such as installing debris racks and additional drainage features to allow drainage to flow if culverts become plugged, upsizing culverts to handle increased post-fire run-off, installing rolling dips, and constructing emergency spillways. BAER treatments cannot prevent all damage, especially debris torrents in areas that are prone to sliding and have lost critical root structure from plants.
The Cans and Cannots of BAER:
What BAER Can Do
Install water or erosion control devices
Seed or mulch for erosion control or stability reasons.
Install erosion control measures at critical cultural sites.
Install temporary barriers to protect treated or recovering areas.
Install warning signs.
Replace minor safety related facilities.
Install appropriate-sized drainage features on roads, trails.
Remove critical safety hazards.
Prevent permanent loss of T&E habitat.
Monitor BAER treatments.
Implement EDRR treatments to minimize the spread of noxious weeds into native plant communities.
What BAER Cannot Do
Replant commercial forests or grass for forage.
Excavate and interpret cultural sites.
Replace burned pasture fences.
Install interpretive signs.
Replace burned buildings bridges corrals etc.
Repair roads damaged by floods after fire.
Replace burned habitat.
Monitor fire effects.
Treat pre-existing noxious weeds.
Special Emergency Wildfire Suppression funds are authorized for BAER activities and the amount of these expenses varies with the severity of the fire season. Some years see little BAER activity while other years are extremely busy.
Because of the emergency nature of BAER, initial requests for funding of proposed BAER treatments are supposed to be submitted by the Forest Supervisor to the Regional Office within 7 days of total containment of the fire. The Regional Forester’s approval authority for individual BAER projects is $500,000. Approval for BAER projects exceeding this limit is forwarded onto the Washington Office.