What’s to be done with 2000 fire debris? 

Last summer’s fires left more than an army of standing dead trees on the land. The latest post-fire problem to bedevil fire recovery workers is burnt debris that is being buried, ignored or dumped on the national forest.

Cathy Johnson, a project coordinator for the Bitterroot Interagency Recovery Team (BIRT), says burned cars, twisted metal wreckage, chunks of concrete, cinderblocks and other debris left over from homes that burned, pose an urgent cleanup problem.

The problem is especially acute on 15 to 20 home sites in three south Bitterroot Valley drainages—Laird, Dickson and Rye creeks—that suffered the most intense fire damage, where debris has been piled up along creeks and streams, buried or simply dumped on the national forest.

In addition to charred hunks of metal, ag equipment, old woodstoves and other building materials, Johnson suspects that hazardous materials like engine oil and other automotive fluids may be leaching into the groundwater and creeks. With burned-out landowners beginning to rebuild, she says, there is an immediate need to clean up potentially hazardous sites.

BIRT, formed in the aftermath of last summer’s fires to help private landowners restore and recover their charred land, is actually awash in cash. The agency recently received a $2.6 million federal grant to speed up the land recovery process. About 34 people who lost income from the fires have been hired by BIRT to perform restoration projects on private land, and Johnson expects that eventually there will be 100 affected Bitterrooters on BIRT’s payroll.

But the federal grant pays for workers only, and doesn’t cover equipment costs. BIRT has workers to clean up debris but not the heavy equipment those workers need.

Jim Freeman, who also works with BIRT, says the mammoth wildfire recovery grant is the first of its kind in the nation. The feds have granted equally large amounts of taxpayer money to other places in the nation stricken by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, but never to wildfire recovery.

Freeman says at least one landowner took it upon himself to pay the expense of collecting and hauling his charred debris to two separate landfills before he found one that would accept it. Total price tag: $1,000. “For a lot of folks that’s a prohibitive cost.”

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