Rebuilding Trails After the Carr Fire in California.
The Carr Fire in northern California was one of many devastating wildfires to hit the United States over the last year, burning from July 23rd – August 30th, 2018 and effecting 229,651 acres of land. The fire, which started due to sparks coming off of a vehicle, caused $1.659 billion dollars in damage before its containment, and the process of rebuilding will be long and difficult. The area of northern California where the fire spread, Shasta County and the surrounding areas, are known for their beautiful trails and outdoor recreation activities, many of which were affected by the fire.
Travis Menne, the Community Projects Manager for the city of Redding, reports that initially after the fire was contained the city had to close 15 miles of trails. Other surrounding areas and agencies, such as Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, and the Bureau of Land Management had to close many more. After tireless work from the park staff of Redding, they were able to cut the closure rate to 4 miles of trail in just one month, which included that which had the heaviest infrastructure damage.
According to Menne, “The two trails with the most lasting damage are the Sacramento River Trail and the Buenaventura Trail (10 Bridges). Between the two trails there are 14 bridges that are critically damaged or completely destroyed. In fact, all 10 of the bridges on the 10 bridges trail now require replacement or have completely disintegrated. Trails are an outlet for people and are great for mental health. For that reason we saw people on closed trails just days after the fire looking to recapture some thread of their normal day to day life.”
Not all of the damage was as severe as that on the Buenaventura Trail or Sacramento River Trail, much of the cleanup involved replacing wayfinding signs, repairing damaged landscaping, and removing brush and burned trees. That was the damage that the city was able to tackle right away. Opening access was a top priority, with Menne saying, “Being able to safely provide some level of service to the residents was the main goal in some of these easier areas.”
The damage to trails was not uniform, which means on some you can hardly tell there was any damage at all, while others have been described as looking like a wasteland or moonscape. However, even on these trails, it has already been reported that fresh plants started popping up through the ground in less than a month, showing the resiliency of Mother Nature. This is giving Redding a unique opportunity to prop up native plant species over invasive plant competition, one positive side effect of the rebuilding process. Menne is particularly excited about this aspect, saying, “So as much as we are actively focusing on getting our trails back and open, we, as a community with such an inspirational landscape are putting our passion into how they should come back and restoring the native vegetation.”
The rebuilding process after a fire is inherently complicated. The first step is to remove all the destroyed structures to create a fresh canvas, which means there will be gaps in the system that need to be filled. What this means in Redding, for example, is on the trails with destroyed bridges, they had to go in and remove all the burned out structures, and then one by one they are moving further into each trail, replacing the bridges as they go. They are rebuilding in a linear fashion thanks to this limitation. Menne adds, “There is no alternate route for trails. For our Sacramento River Trail, we intend to reuse the original stonework abutments from the railroad construction in the early-mid 1880s. They are quite impressive to see and we are happy to have them incorporated into our rebuilding process. As far as the process, it is much like initial construction. We are contracting to develop engineered plans, go out to bid and contract the work.”
The timeline the city of Redding is hoping for the bridge reconstruction on their Sacramento River Trail is six months, however because of the uncertainty of the building process, timelines have to stay fluid. According to the city, this trail specifically is “vital for emergency access and crucial for erosion efforts”, and that’s why there is a focus on rebuilding as soon as possible, whereas the Buenaventura Trail will have a longer timeline. The design process for these trails will likely take a couple of months alone.
Menne described man projects associated with the rebuilding process, saying, “Right now we are working on our Re-Oak Redding campaign, which will plant up to 3,000 oak trees along our trails and riverfront. Future projects include riparian restoration in areas previously dominated by ailanthus, Himalayan blackberry, and broom. Many of these areas were the subject of years of restorative efforts and to allow that to be undone would be tragic. For this reason we are hoping to raise funds to drive this new effort to restore the environment back to a pristine riparian corridor. Our partners at the Redding Parks and Trails Foundation are reaching out to the community and beyond to gather support for restorative efforts like native planting projects, invasive species removal, and funding a steward to provide intensive care for the land during its recovery. It’s not so much that the vegetation bounces back, it’s how it comes back and what plants are present. We have the chance to get ahead of this and complete an effort that has taken this community decades.”
Trail maintenance, even before fires, is a never ending job, and this will only grow for Redding in the coming years as they city works to maintain control over erosion and drainage after the fire damage. One way Redding is tackling dealing with the challenges of rebuilding is by looking to others for advice. Menne reports, “We have some great partners locally that have dealt with this a lot in the past. Our local BLM office is one of our key partners in trail development in Redding. They have been through this before and offered tremendous support and guidance. We are also working with our partners at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, as they have extensive damage from the Carr Fire and have dealt with fires in the past.”
As wildfires continue to blaze across the country during the summer (and even fall) months, it’s important in the rebuilding process to take the possibility of a future fire into consideration. Some trails and structures cannot be rebuilt in their original ways, but must be made as “fireproof” as possible. For this reason, Redding will not be replacing all their burned bridges with replicas of what was previously there. This will mean incorporating precast concrete and steel decks on the Sacramento River Trail. On the Buenaventura Trail, as Menne describes it, “Our focus will be to install small precast concrete and steel spans with new abutments. While constructing wood bridges is easier and cost effective (the materials are often brought in by teams of laborers or workers from the California Conservation Corps) they are obviously susceptible to fire damage and were subject to the constraints of initial grant funding. Wood bridges aren’t particularly a hazard and are in many cases the only option. But in this instance, we are finding it to be in our best interest to replace them with off the shelf steel structures.”
Menne also wants to stress for all trail builders, “Fireworthiness should be a factor in future decision making regarding trail construction. Natural trails in the area have melted culverts, but in some cases these can be converted into rock armored low-water crossings. All of our wood wayfinding signs were completely lost, having a good inventory of what went where before the incident would have been really helpful. Trails often provide access to remote areas and, depending on the width, can be crucial in fire suppression efforts. In fact, one of our natural surface trails acted as a fire break and quite possibly saved several homes. I think that speaks a lot to the value of them in urban and rural areas.”
The future of Redding trails looks bright, despite the damage done by the Carr Fire. The city itself is very optimistic, and embracing the opportunities brought by the reconstruction process. The citizens of Redding have stepped up in a big way, and will continue to lead volunteer efforts throughout the region, on top of all of the work done by officials, and in the coming years there is no reason why the trail system won’t just be completely restored, but better than ever.
Additional note from Travis: “Redding Parks, the BLM, Whiskeytown NRA and The McConnell Foundation got together using our GIS department and launched ReddingTrails.com (use story map link) to provide up to date information to our residents. I think that is a huge factor in keeping the trails community satisfied and fired up about trails. We have found that using that tool has given us a way to reach out and let people know we are working on it and that trails are a priority for this community.”