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Fire fighting mars the earth. California crews are fixing it

LAKEPORT, Calif. – Jack Hattendorf sends his road grader back and forth on an unpaved path cut through the black earth.

With each pass, he softened and balloons down the bottom to a remake of a dirt road that the fire department tore days earlier to stop the flames that would become part of the largest forest fire on record in California.

Even if the flames chew through woodland in the local area, Hattendorf and others working on the recovery of the damage is not caused by fire, but firefighters are trying to stop them. They seek to restore their own land, the protection of the environment and the water, and prevent erosion, which can lead to mudslides such as the tour already of a community outside of Santa Barbara in January, killing almost two dozen people.

“Suppression repair” starts almost as soon as the fire moves through and the ground cools off — a massive, but often overlooked, component of fire-fighting.

“We just follow behind, when it’s all done and checked, and fix everything we can,” said Tim Meyers, a forester for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that the supervision suppression of the repair on the twin fire known as the Mendocino Complex.

Crews control fire in the forest glows by controlling them to within containment lines built as quickly as possible by bulldozers and hand tools to clear flammable brush and slow down or stop the spread of fire by removing the fuel. When the fire is extinguished in an area, a team with an array of heavy equipment goes in looking for things to recover.

They replaced barbed wire cattle fences, gates, and crushed the divers; to smooth out dirt roads torn apart by heavy equipment; smoothing of the berms made by bulldozers and put trails back in shape.

When necessary, they work with Native American tribes to repair damage to archaeological sites, or clean the pink fluid that suppresses a fire of the waterways.

If there is something they can’t solve, for example, a bulldozer plowed through an ornate gate outside someone’s driveway — the owner can file a claim for compensation.

One day late last week, 19 bulldozers, four graders, six bulldozers and about a dozen water tenders were assigned to make repairs to the Mendocino Complex Fire, Meyers said.

Suppression of the repair is primarily led by foresters and other Cal Fire officials with a background in managing natural resources. They also train seasonal and permanent firefighters, Meyers said, and getting help from dozens of contractors operating heavy equipment.

“It’s not as glamorous as fire fighting, but it is just as necessary,” Meyers said.

Dawn Bodley did not mind that bulldozers cut a containment line through her backyard. The fire swept through her property, but thanks to the firefighters who stayed and fought, her home and garden were spared.

“I think that those are special people,” said Bodley, 62, who lives on a former ranch outside of the city of Lakeport. “I don’t know how they do it. They walk on fire to protect other people’s property, not even their own.”

Not everyone is happy with how the firefighters went about their work. A farmer said bulldozers tore up the pasture, and trees knocked over with no clear strategy.

The farmer who refused his name because he does not want to be identified criticized the fire department said that the repair crew have done good work, which he appreciates, but was irritated so much damage was done in the first place.

Fully enclosed of the largest ever in California wildfire that is burning about 120 miles (264 km) north of San Francisco is still weeks away, but the suppression of the work is in full swing and the last few months.

One of the most important tasks: building of the dirt humps about bulldozer scars to direct water away from the barren, dusty path. That prevents sediment from clouding of streams and rivers, which is harmful to endangered fish. It also helps to prevent erosion — a serious problem after the fire wipes out the vegetation that holds the soil together.

The mudslides that buried parts of the rich community of Montecito in January were caused by rains that came soon after the fire and for the suppression repairs are done. The work can not prevent that kind of erosion, Meyers said, but it might slow down.

With California facing larger and more destructive fires because of the heat and drought due to climate change, the repair may start earlier to provide extra manpower and equipment are available, he said.

Keith and Melissa Barnhart, that the management of a mobile home park that the fire department used as a basis, said they were impressed by how well the crews cleaned up. The most important evidence of the effort is the pink liquid dropped by aircraft to slow flames that coats the trailers and buildings.

“It’s pink, but we are happy,” Keith Barnhart said. “We would prefer that pink to black.”

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