Cloud Of Smoke Has Silver Lining
Fort Ord burn will mean good news for wildflowers and critters, as Army tries to figure out how it got away.
Thursday, October 30, 2003
Baby blue eyes, fire poppies, Indian warrior, lupine, orchids, various lilies, phacelias, rush rose, sunflowers and red maids will bloom in a vivid spectrum of bright orange, dark blue, yellows, purples, greens and white this April all over what''s now smoldering and crisp, black earth at Fort Ord.
The explosion of annual wildflowers will be followed by growth of pitcher sage and wild lilacs, then, after about ten years, manzanita and oak will come to dominate rolling hills that for decades the U.S. Army pounded and plowed with its arsenal of mortars, rockets, missiles, grenades, machine guns and howitzers.
Where war tools once spat fire and lead, Mother Nature will soon burst with life and color.
"Temporarily, the aboveground animals, the deer, fox, mountain lions and coyotes were pushed out," says Bruce Delgado, a botanist at the Bureau of Land Management''s station on Fort Ord and Marina City Councilman. "But with re-growth, the herbivores like deer and rabbits will flock back to the area because they''ll have the best kind of nutritious food. The birds come back because of the flowers, the predators follow and the whole web of life is thriving again."
Delgado, who has worked as a botanist on the base since 1996, says that as far as land management is concerned, the Army''s controversial prescribed burn could not have been better. When all is said and done--and plenty will at least be said--the burn that leapt out of control on Oct. 24, burning 1470 acres rather than the intended 490, will produce rejuvenated maritime chaparral habitat, a very rare ecosystem in coastal California. The former firing ranges will be preserved as public open space once crews locate and destroy leftover, unexploded ordnance--the work the burn was designed to facilitate.
"From a habitat perspective, this was an extremely good burn because it burned hot and clean, like someone took a broom and cleaned out all the vegetation. Even before we get rains it will start to come back," Delgado says. "The explosion of wildflowers, green growth and animal life this spring and next year will be the display of our lifetimes. There are some species that have been waiting for that fire for quite some time."
So has the Army. Until it can be cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO), vast acreages on the old base must remain cordoned off behind barbed-wire fences, a vast liability should curious neighborhood boys sneak in to gather dusty grenades, as they''ve done before.
According to army officials, clean-up crews cannot clear out the UXO with the tools designed for the work--blades or flails--because the brush is too thick to see the hidden weaponry and at the same time, the rare maritime chaparral--of which 90 percent of the world''s remaining stock is on Fort Ord--cannot just be cut back or uprooted.
Under the habitat management plan for base re-use, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, through the Endangered Species Act, mandates that it be burned, because only then can the rare ecosystem recover properly.
Hence, the cloud of smoke and drifting ash that choked out the Peninsula last week.
While nature will stage a major post-fire comeback on Fort Ord, various public agencies will stage hearings, convene panels and compile reports as to what actually went wrong.
On Oct. 28, Rep. Sam Farr''s office released a statement vowing to hold a public hearing in Monterey very quickly and to take the Army to task for the prescribed burn''s unruliness.
"I told the Army the failure to control the burn at Fort Ord was unacceptable, and we need to find out what went wrong as soon as possible," he said.
Besides Farr''s hearing, a panel of pertinent agency executives will be convened locally through the regular Fort Ord clean-up meetings.
The decision to set the fires last week was made at the highest levels; the ultimate decision rested with an Army official at the Pentagon. Although under Superfund law the Army did not need to obtain state air pollution permits for the burn, the head of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, a top executive from the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency''s (EPA) regional chief for Superfund operations held a conference call with Army officials on Oct. 23, the day before the burn.
"Everyone on the call was basically confident, or not opposed to the Army proceeding," says John Chesnutt, the EPA manager running Superfund operations at Fort Ord.
In order to get the smoke up high and out to sea, an offshore breeze and a 1,500 foot "mixing height" that would allow the smoke to dissipate was needed. Forecasts said it would happen. But the fire may have been ignited prematurely.
"They lit the fire before the 1,500 foot limit was met," Chesnutt says. "Some of the smoke didn''t punch through right away, and started moving through Seaside originally. This time we thought the forecast was right on and it pretty much was."
One question that remains unanswered is how the fire escaped control measures, growing from an intended 490-acre fire to three times that.
"The fire was going quite well until it jumped the boundary," Chesnutt says. The fire spread could have been caused by any number of factors, Chesnutt says. He notes that during the last prescribed burn in 1997, which also got away, a flaming rabbit was spotted crossing a firebreak.
Unlike the raging wildfires in southern California, the damage here has been minor. Air monitoring was conducted during the Fort Ord burn by the Monterey Bay Air Pollution Control District. Despite concerns that military-generated contaminates would be combusted and enter the smoke as particles, the EPA is confident that there was nothing more exotic than would found in ordinary forest-fire smoke.
Still, breathing in smoke is clearly harmful, and monitors showed unhealthy levels from Toro Park on Highway 68 out to the Peninsula on Friday and Saturday, according to air pollution district officer Douglas Quetin. Tests should soon show the size and nature of the smoke''s particulate matter, but there were no reports of massive health trouble.
"We have reports of exacerbated asthma," Quetin said.
All the results of the fire will be compiled in a multi-agency report. One question remains the cost, as some 700 families took advantage of the Army''s offer to pay for temporary relocation during the prescribed burn. Because the burn tripled in size, relocation and fire suppression costs clearly rose.
Just how to do it again remains another question as the Army has about 6,500 more acres of old training ranges to burn and clear over the next decade.
"This is the beginning of a burn cycle the Army wants to be able to continue for a number of years," Chesnutt says. "Obviously they''re going to come under some scrutiny. I''m sure all these questions will be answered in the coming months."