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.
BAER Interagency Coordination:
Post-fire emergency response is a shared responsibility. There are several Federal, State and local agencies that have emergency response responsibilities or authorities in the post-fire environment. The BAER team coordinates with these agencies to look at the full scope and scale of the situation to reduce the potential threats to human life and property. It is important that BAER efforts are communicated with all affected and interested cooperating agencies and organizations regarding other post-fire recovery and restoration efforts.
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 to provide post-fire threat information to local cooperators who can assist affected businesses, homes, and landowners to prepare for rain events. For example, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program for post-emergency assistance on private and tribal land, the National Weather Service (NWS) has responsibility for flood warning alerts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has flood insurance and other responsibilities if the area is a Presidentially-declared emergency, Resource Conservation Districts (RCD) and counties, as well as State and local-highway and emergency services departments, Flood Control authorities, etc. It is important that landowners work directly with NRCS and other agencies to determine appropriate actions needed to protect private structures and other assets.
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 very low/unburned, low, 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 critical values. Response action timing is essential to ensure the emergency stabilization measures are 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 to protect soil productivity, increasing road drainage to keep roads and bridges from washing-out during post-fire floods, and early detection rapid response invasive plant treatments to prevent spread of weeds into native plant communities. BAER treatments are preventative in nature but 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:
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 limited. Approval for BAER projects exceeding this limit is forwarded onto the Washington Office.