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Butte Fire Leaves Landscape Ripe For Flooding

The Butte Fire left behind barren ground that no longer absorbs water. "It’s just soil waiting to flow off," says property owner Mike Kirkly. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio


With El Niño rain in the winter forecast for California, state and federal officials worry about potential flooding over burn scars from recent wildfires.

Preparing for landslides is especially difficult on the region charred by the Butte Fire. In September, flames torched more than 70,000 acres of steep terrain about an hour east of Stockton.

Mike Kirkly lost about 71 acres in Calaveras County.

He carefully dodges potholes in his large silver pickup on a bumpy road leading to his property. He pauses at a blackened makeshift fence. 

“You know I had a beautiful wooded piece of property. I was managing it for timber production. My son and I planted seedlings. Now you look at it, and it looks almost like a moonscape,” sighs Kirkly.

He drives along the rim of a steep canyon filled with ashes and rocks. Kirkly says the drainage usually morphs into a lush stream in the spring.

“And, [now] it’s just soil waiting to flow off,” shrugs Kirkly.

He’s assessed many burn scars because he’s retired from Cal Fire. He never thought he’d be assessing damage and losses on his own property.

He points to a stand of tree trunks – pines and other conifers.

“They’re just black skeletons right now. And, then the ground does not have any vegetative matter at all. All the shrubs, all the grasses, all the leaf litter, all the needle litter is just completely gone,” says Kirkly.

Kirkly says the barren ground will provide a slip and slide for sediment, debris and soil.

"A raindrop will hit it and it won't penetrate in, it just sheets off like there's plastic on the ground,” stresses Kirkly.

Erosion is expected to plug up culverts, and silt could fill dams downstream. The area is drained by multiple watercourses including the Calaveras and Mokelumne Rivers – which drain into reservoirs that provide the drinking water for people in the East Bay and Stockton.

But, it's not just drinking water that's in danger.

“If we do get this El Niño year like everyone is predicting, the roads could get damaged. You have culverts in the road they could plug up and then wash your road out,” says Kirkly.

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Mike Kirkly drives through his 71-acre property destroyed by the Butte Fire.   Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department has issued a public notice warning residents of potential mudslides and road closures in the wake of rainfall.

Katherine Evatt, president of the Foothill Conservancy – an environmental organization that protects the region's watersheds emphasizes, “Our little communities aren’t served by very many roads, so if you lose a road for any length of time it can be a real hardship for people.”

Evatt says the Butte Fire was unlike most large wildfires in that the vast majority of flames swept across private property rather than public lands – making clean-up and restoration trickier.

“Private landowners don’t necessarily have a stash of money ready to go and rehabilitate their properties. And there’s not a lot of funding available out there to help them with helping their restore their landscapes,” says Evatt.

These are the challenges Mike Kirkly is facing.

"If you see the rehabilitation that goes on -- on a let's say a U.S. Forest Service Fire -- they'll fly mulch in with helicopters. It's me, and my pick-up truck! It's very expensive. I got 71 acres here. I can't. You know?"

Kirkly estimates that his property has lost two-thirds of its value. 

"I mean I could spend tens of thousands of dollars to bring a contractor in but you know that's not reasonable... I'm not even going to get an economic return on my salvage logging," says Kirkly.

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Despite the Butte Fire's devastating effects, some trees are starting to return.   Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

He walks along the creek where stump holes still burn. A few green shoots peek out of the soil.

"There's some ferns coming up right there!" exclaims Kirkly.

He says he'll likely hand over his land to Mother Nature and hope the rains come in light intervals rather than downpours this winter.


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