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Mariposa's scorched hillside still a danger

A new battle against the elements is unfolding in the foothills of Mariposa County, where the Telegraph fire has stripped away the natural architecture that holds up the hillsides -- the vast patchwork of grass, brush and trees.

With the first autumn rains coming as soon as a month from now, hundreds of workers are scrambling to shore up the ravaged landscape and prevent a runoff disaster.

The stakes are high: Heavy runoff could wash soot, ash and bare soil from the burned hillsides into the Merced River and other streams, filling them with silt. Fish could die from lack of oxygen in the water. Clogged waterways could result in widespread floods.

"These mountains are bare now, and they're black with soot and ash," Mariposa County Cal Fire Assistant Chief Bill Hodson said.

Adding to the urgency: The fire season is far from over. The peak fire danger occurs from mid-August until the first rains fall, Hodson said. If another major fire breaks out in the area, most of the crews could be called away, leaving the Mariposa County hillsides precariously fragile.

Even after the rains come, the restoration effort will continue. It will take about a year for crews to plant seeds and clear debris across 53 square miles of scorched earth, officials said.

Thirty homes and about 100 outbuildings also were destroyed in the blaze, which was contained Aug. 7. Homeowners have been allowed to return, and they, too, are embarking on restoration efforts.

Mike Chaty's two-bedroom home burned to the ground in the fire. "We used to have a gorgeous view," he said, but now his 20 acres around the homestead "basically looks like a moonscape."

Chaty's land is bordered on three sides by federal Bureau of Land Management property and on the fourth side by other private property owners. He is waiting to see if he can reimburse the bureau for including his property in reseeding work it may be planning. That would cost less than having the work done on his own, he said.

Target shooting sparked the fire, officials have said. The Mariposa County District Attorney's Office is expected to decide this week whether to file criminal charges against the 28-year-old man who fired the shots.

Meanwhile, about 200 workers -- including state Department of Corrections prison inmate crews -- are knocking down the berms created when bulldozers dug fire breaks.

The workers are taking dirt from the berms to build channels that they hope will divert rainwater onto the unburned side of the fire lines.

As they work, the hillsides rumble with the sound of bulldozers and water-tender trucks.

"If a bulldozer pushed a rock into a creek, we pull the rock out," Mariposa County Cal Fire Battalion Chief Don Stein said.

But much of the work must be done by hand, with rakes and shovels.

Crews are stacking unburned brush pushed aside by the dozers into piles to be burned after the weather cools. Intense heat killed some trees outright and burned into root systems, resulting in dead and dying trees. Those also are being removed.

Workers also are scattering straw across the bare hillsides to slow the runoff.

"Reducing that erosion reduces the impact for the whole ecosystem," Hodson said.

For now, the cost of the rehabilitation work has been paid from the interagency Telegraph fire incident budget, which is expected to push past $39 million. But today, officials from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are expected to work out how much each agency will pay.

It's not clear how much the restoration will cost, although Hodson said it won't come close to the bill for fighting the fire.

Inside the Stanislaus and Sierra national forests, the U.S. Forest Service is expected to pay for rehab. Cal Fire and the federal Bureau of Land Management will share the bill for hillsides beyond the national forest boundaries, Hodson said.

Hodson expects reseeding to begin after the weather cools. Grasses will be reseeded and other reseeding needs are being assessed. The Forest Service will determine the restoration needs for charred timber in the Stanislaus National Forest.

In a few areas, the terrain is too steep and impassable for workers' safety, Hodson said. These areas won't be rehabilitated.

One remnant of the firefighting effort won't be removed. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant dropped from the sky have left huge, reddish stripes smeared across the landscape.

The retardant stripes will remain -- and might even help, Hodson said. Sunlight neutralizes the retardant, which then becomes a fertilizer that promotes new growth.

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