Forest Service announces $24.8 million rehab plan for site of 138,000-acre Colorado wildfire

Wednesday, July 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (AP) _ Federal workers want to lend Mother Nature a hand in healing the blackened moonscape left behind by Colorado's largest wildfire.

Small planes will spread fast-growing rye and barley seed on the barren hills where the wildfire burned 138,000 acres. The $24.8 million plan is designed to prevent erosion in the area southwest of Denver.

Forest Service officials hope the grasses will grow fast enough to prevent rain from washing away the soil. On flatter surfaces, all-terrain vehicles will rake the soil and plant seeds, which should sprout a week after planting.

``It's a race to get this done before the first big storm,'' said Ken Kenaan, a soil scientist leading the effort. While mulching can begin this week, land that will be raked must first be surveyed for thousands of archaeological artifacts, he said.

The fire, which started June 8, was contained last week after destroying 133 homes and a business. Forest Service employee Terry Barton has pleaded innocent to charges that she started the fire.

The rehabilitation plan could take up to four months. The grasses were selected because they will not sprout next year, allowing the area's natural vegetation to return.

``Mother Nature does a good job. We just need to keep in place that soil we have precious little of,'' Kenaan said.

Outside Durango, a 50-year-old grocery store worker was being questioned after allegedly setting at least seven small fires near her home even as a 73,000-acre wildfire blaze raged nearby.

Annie Francis Johnson was arrested Saturday on suspicion of fourth-degree arson, said Hollis Holland, La Plata County sheriff's investigator. Officials said they knew of no motive.

The first of the small blazes at the D-Bar-K subdivision began June 9 and the last was kindled July 2. To fight the flames, firefighters diverted resources from the larger wildfire, which ultimately destroyed 56 homes.

In eastern Arizona, remaining firefighters spent Tuesday repairing land in the smoldering interior of that state's largest fire, which burned across 468,638 acres and destroyed 467 homes. It was declared contained Sunday.

Firefighters were planting grass and building dirt barriers along the bulldozed fire lines so water would divert from the bare soil into areas of remaining vegetation. They hope to finish their work before the annual monsoons blow into the state later this month.

The same rain officials worry will erode the land, however, is the best chance firefighters have to put out hot spots still smoldering in the interior, said fire spokesman Bruce Palmer.

``It's going to take a gentle, soaking rain that's spread over several days,'' he said.

In Santa Clarita, Calif., a wildfire burned dangerously close to homes Tuesday before firefighters were able to get the blaze under control. At one point, 20 houses were evacuated. Fire officials said the blaze was ignited by a car along an interstate and quickly grew to 75 acres.

It was the second brush fire in the Los Angeles suburb in as many days. A fire Monday burned down one home and damaged two others.