Scientists Now Mapping Museum Fire Soil Burn Severity

By Scott Bourque
Published: Friday, August 2, 2019 - 11:26am
Updated: Friday, August 2, 2019 - 12:53pm

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A map of soil burn severity from the Museum Fire.
U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service
A map of soil burn severity from the Museum Fire.

The bulk of the firefighting crews working the Museum Fire in Flagstaff are gone. In their place: a group of scientists from different federal agencies who are surveying the damage.

Geologists, hydrologists, engineers, soil experts, and other scientists make up the Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team. Their mission is to evaluate the damage caused by the fire and make recommendations for repairs and restoration measures.

Right now, their priority is mapping soil damage, which is the main catalyst for the flash flood danger Flagstaff is facing. If the fire is hot enough, it can turn the soil into a glass-like substance.

“Depending on how hot the fire moves through an area, it makes the soil more hydrophobic,” said BAER team member Katie Webb. “That just means the water is going to roll off of it instead of soak into it.”

The first step is developing a soil burn severity map, which pairs the extent of the soil damage with the steepness of the land to better predict potential flooding, rockslides, and sediment flows.

These maps and reports are shared with local agencies as they work on flood mitigation infrastructure.

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