Winter storms bring new concerns to fire ravaged areas

- Rain, normally welcome this time of year, is a challenge in the North Bay burn areas. Twin threats of erosion and water pollution have officials scrambling. 

"The steeper areas of the watershed are shown to have the most risk of landslide," observed Rita Miller, Environmental Director for Santa Rosa Water.  

Miller and other members of a newly formed Watershed Task Force are getting their first reports on the extent of fire damage, and future risk due to fire-scorched slopes and streams. 

"Ten percent, close to ten percent of the Russian River watershed has burned," shared Miller, "so there's a lot of work to be done." 

The burned neighborhoods, already bleak, seem to look even sadder in the soggy conditions. Streets are lined with barriers to block storm drains- filters made of rock, compost, or straw.

Slopes in the hilly areas such as Fountain Grove and Mark West Springs are also dotted with the tube-like wattles, to protect waterways. Fortunately, the current round of rain should not be heavy enough to defeat them.

"Not this rain, this rain is forecast as light to moderate, so we expect the rain to soak into the ground, " reassured Miller. 

But the next one, and storms that follow, raise the concern that thousands of homes, now toxic dumps, can't be cleared soon enough. 

Santa Rosa has more than one hundred miles of creek. There are more than six hundred streams in Sonoma County's fire-affected areas. 

In the destroyed Mark West Estates neighborhood in Larkfield, Mark West Creek runs along the backyards of dozens of ruined properties.

There are no barriers protecting the creek, because homeowners must give permission for crews to enter private property to place them. 

If pollutants enter storm drains or creeks, they flow to the tributaries that feed the Russian River, and eventually the Pacific. 

Engineers say it's a potential threat to acquatic habitat and drinking water.  

"Our watersheds filter this drinking water," explained Claudia Villacorta, Division Chief for the Ca. Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

"It's important that we prevent all the debris and ash that is associated with the fire from getting into those streams." 

Later this month, the task force will get a report on the risk of mud and landslides due to fire erosion.

"We need to be working on conditioning these hills now, tomorrow, this year," exclaimed Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose District 4 encompasses much of the fire zone. 

Gore has a background in conservation, and worries that if the burned hills east of Santa Rosa are not re-seeded and restored, they will "melt" this winter. 

"It rains all of a sudden and it just becomes sludge, and that ash and that soil runs straight down, " Gore cautioned, "so it melts like a slime coming down into the communities." 

Friday night, the rain was generally light enough it soaked and tamped down the ash without moving it too dramatically.

But with so much future risk, and dramatic damage to the watershed, CALFIRE will bring back crews, starting this weekend, not to fight fire- but it's aftermath. 

"They will be clearing fallen debris out of creeks, waterways, some of our reservoirs," explained Miller, "so they are helping with anything they can, as quickly as they can." 

Water and emergency officials also ask of homeowners: don't use a blower or water hose to clean ash at home sites. It's best to gently sweep ash, if it must be handled at all. 

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