The Forest Service held a media tour last Thursday morning at the Chappie-Shasta Off Highway Vehicle staging area just west of Shasta Dam. The purpose of the junket was to offer the public a glimpse of the agency’s on-going Burned Area Emergency Response  helimulching project.
Using helicopters to disperse straw bales over acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest burned in this summer’s 28,000 acre Motion Fire, the Forest Service hopes to stabilize the steep hillsides against the threat of landslides and uncontrolled erosion.
The cost of using helicopters to disperse the straw ($1,000 per acre) is approximately half of that of a 16-man handcrew ($2,000 per acre), according to a Forest Service press release. Additionally, it only takes a helicopter a single day to cover the same amount of land that a handcrew would need 14 to 28 days to complete.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest Watershed Specialist and BAER Implementation Team Leader Annetta Mankins said each helicopter lifts three straw bales per sortie, roughly 1,500 pounds, and each release covers one acre of land four inches deep with straw.
The straw is only a temporary measure meant to help the fragile hillsides through the first two years following a fire, until new growth can take root.
“This year has been real tough,” Mankins explained. “We’ve been working since June 20. We’ve just gone from fire to fire.”
“The bales we are using are certified ‘weed-free’ rice straw from Shaddinger Farms in Arbuckle,” said Albert Hanson, director of marketing for Columbia Basin, the contractor that owns and operates the two Bell UH1H helicopters currently being used in the project. “They take the twine out of the bales, the ground crew sets it on the cargo net. The net has four rings. Three rings are on a remote hook at the end of a 150 foot synthetic line. The fourth ring is on a tag line [which is pulled to release the straw].”
While in the past, helicopters pilots used to fly with a “map in their hand, and just flag the perimeter,” according to Hanson, today they benefit from the use of GPS positioning computers. A ‘shape file’ of the area to be helimulched is uploaded onto the helicopter’s computer, relieving the pilot of much of the guesswork.
As the Columbia Basin helicopter flew sortie after sortie Thursday morning, the black hills were painted with great yellow splashes of straw. According to Brad Rust, Shasta-Trinity National Forest Soils Scientist and BAER Assesment Team Leader, the management unit has $2.4 million to spend of emergency stabilization in areas burned this year.
“When we get the straw down, things are safer and stabilized,” Rust said as shreds of straw floated down through the sky from the nearby worksite. “The straw has no environmental concerns whatsoever. It’s benign, it acts like dead leaves... A year from now there will be a lot of green on these hills... We really hope to open this very popular OHV park next year.”