protecting storm drains

Joint taskforce shoring up burned areas, protecting storm drains and watersheds

The first rains that hit the area this month were a welcome relief from the fires and the memories they left behind, yet they signal the next phase of fire-related challenges. It’s well known that after the fire, often comes the flood.

“When it rains after a fire — and this can occur for about five years after a fire — there is less vegetation and the soil is less able to absorb water from flash flooding,” said county spokesperson Jennifer Larocque. “Water will move quickly across any landscape and when it moves, that can quickly pick up debris from fires or lose soil and become a mud flow. So, people in burned areas should stay alert and watch for unusual occurrences in their surroundings.”

While the risk  of flooding will be high for those in burned areas and those downhill or downstream from them, there are already steps being taken to help mitigate some of these issues. A joint task force of the county of Sonoma, the city of Santa Rosa and Cal Fire have started to work to help manage some of these issues.

According to Larocque,  they are analyzing the topography of the burned areas and the storm water system to implement the best management.

“In rural areas, debris capture devices have been placed in areas where water is flowing into culverts and ditches,” Larocque said. “In urban areas we are using straw wattles and other material to protect the storm drains.”

In addition, she said that in rural areas CalFire is clearing debris in creeks on public and private property and chipping it. Also, straw wattles have been placed on burned down slopes and in some places and “hydroseeding” has taken place. Hydroseeding covers burned areas in a sprayed green mixture of grass seed, fertilizer and soil stabilizers meant to help promote plant growth and soil stability.

“The goal is to prevent erosion,” Larocque said. “We are working to check all of our inlets and make sure that we are protecting them with the best materials available, including straw wattles to catch particulate and drainage rock to keep the storm water system free from any debris to protect against any flooding.”

CalFire has a special team that is skilled in this kind of work, said Larocque, and that given the lessons learned after past fires, they are “expert at coming into an at-risk watershed and implementing protective measures specifically for this circumstance.”

Finally, the Sonoma County Water Agency will be installing rainfall and stream gauges in watersheds in burned areas and working to install radar equipment to improve early warning forecasts for residents in high-risk areas.

In addition to flooding and damage fears, there are also very real concerns about the effect tons of silt, ash and toxins will have on the delicate and vital watersheds for several species of fish, such as the steelhead.

“Its safe to say we are focused on protecting all of our waterways for water supply and environmental purposes,” Larocque said.

While the coalition is working to provide coverage for all their focus will be, by necessity, on public lands and watersheds. Private landowners can also find assistance, in the form of the  Sonoma Resource Conservation District.

Visitors to that website will find a special page for fire recovery efforts offered, including “site visits and planning services for landowners and managers to determine resource needs and appropriate actions concerning erosion, riparian areas, etc.; connecting landowners with funding resources available for post-fire natural resource protection; natural resource permit assistance on a fee for service basis; the Natural Resources Recovery Guide, which provides information for homeowners and landowners as to what services local, state and federal organizations are offering to those affected by the fires and contact details and the website will be updated regularly with the latest natural resource management information, funding and technical assistance programs available.”

As the rains fall this winter, Larocque stresses vigilance and says, “if you see something, say something,” encouraging anyone seeing concerning water flows  or potential floods or slides to first get to safety and then call 911 to report what they see.

Larocque recommended that anyone looking for additional information about their efforts check while the Sonoma Resource Conservation District’s fire recovery information can be found at or by calling Jeff Schreiber at 569-1448 x110.

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