Aerial mulching on the King Fire

heli-mulching King Fire
A helicopter lifting a sling load of straw mulch. USFS photo.

Two months after 12 firefighters were entrapped and eventually led to safety by a pilot in a helicopter, helicopters again played an important role in the King Fire in northern California.

In late November the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) began a joint project to drop straw mulch from helicopters over approximately 1,200 acres of Eldorado National Forest land that burned with moderate to high intensity during the recent King Fire. The purpose of the project is to protect critical infrastructure from potentially severe post-fire erosion that may occur with winter storms. The infrastructure at risk includes Eleven Pines Road, which serves as the primary route from Highway 50 to the northern end of the Eldorado National Forest, and the Brush Creek and Slab Creek reservoirs, which are integral to SMUD’s hydroelectric facilities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

heli-mulching King Fire
A completed straw mulch unit. USFS photo.

“This is a great example of the outstanding collaboration we’ve had during all phases of the King Fire,” said Eldorado Forest Supervisor Laurence Crabtree. A contract was awarded to Bradco Environmental, a company based in Crestline, CA, to complete the work. Large bales of certified weed free straw, a by-product of rice grown in California, were loaded into horizontal grinders which chopped the straw into four to eight inch pieces of mulch prior to aerial application. Two medium sized helicopters were used to drop the mulch onto slopes ranging from 15% to 60% grade, treating approximately 80 acres per day with each helicopter.

All of the treatment areas were identified by Forest Service soil scientists and hydrologists as sites needing immediate attention before heavy winter rains and snow arrived. This emergency erosion prevention project is designed to reduce the amount of sediment eroding off hillsides due to the loss of vegetative cover associated with the fire. Excessive sediment can block culverts and impact water quality in streams and reservoirs which could lead to flooding, road closures, decreased water storage capacity and loss of hydroelectric generation. This joint helimulching project is expected to prevent several thousand tons of sediment from eroding.

On December 4, 2014, due to the predicted weather for the following couple of weeks, all mulching operations were halted until the King Fire receives a significant warming and drying period or until after spring snow melt. This could be several months. Storm patrols and engineering work will continue throughout the winter.

heli-mulching King Fire
Burned Area Emergency Response crew inspects a straw mulched unit. USFS photo.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “Aerial mulching on the King Fire”

  1. Some years back I was involved in a BAER project outside of Loveland CO.. Part of the project was to spread straw (mulch) on the hill side. The hill was visible from town and it was very cool to see our progress as the mountain slowly turned from black to gold.
    We didn’t have the opportunity to long line our straw and had to haul it out to the project over some pretty gnarly roads, so large trucks were out of the question. The rule was everybody hauled straw. Even the IC would stuff a couple of bales into the back of her Jeep when she rode out to the line.


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