IN MID-OCTOBER 2017, Jay Selby turned on the TV news to see what he knew to be a “really detrimental” fire.
“If you’ve worked in this industry long enough, you know you’re going to be involved,” says Selby, president of Selby’s Soil Erosion Control Co. in Newcastle, CA. “There were a lot of upscale homes there and major watershed impacts.”
It wasn’t a typical California wildfire, such as a summer campfire in a rural area spreading but causing little damage, he points out.
This one had a more intense personal feel.
“Everything was very dry. There were unprecedented winds, 75 miles an hour. This thing took off and spread fast,” says Selby. “Most people were evacuated in the middle of the night. Some didn’t make it. People who couldn’t evacuate in time jumped into their swimming pools.”
The fire didn’t just take out the rural forest areas that normally fuel such blazes, but jumped into flat residential neighborhoods and hilly Santa Rosa areas with multimillion-dollar homes, says Selby.
“It jumped a six-lane highway and hopped over into commercial land, taking out several businesses,” he says, adding that it also obliterated 4,000 homes in a 2-mile radius at Coffey Park, burning 8,400 structures in total.
In business for 50 years, Selby’s company was poised to respond. Selby’s Soil Erosion Control’s 60 employees service the government, commercial, and industrial sectors with a mixed fleet, including FINN HydroSeeders, which Selby chooses for their versatility.
The company’s straw-blowing equipment is exclusively FINN, including the small skid mount B70 unit that gets into tight spaces, “which is helpful in fire zones where we’re dealing with a lot of burned down residences with tight narrow access roads and bridges with weight capacity limits on them,” notes Selby.
Post-development wetlands mitigation and post-fire remediation comprise the company’s project list, with the latter becoming more prominent.
“We have long dry periods of no rain during the summer, and then we get a lot of rainfall concentrated within a three-month window in the winters,” he points out.
Post-fire erosion control “is never planned work, but it seems to happen every year where we have massive wildfires,” says Selby. “Our customer base is all over the board. It could be the US Forest Service for a huge area of national forest land that’s burned down.”
Another client is sometimes the California Department of Water Resources when lakes or reservoirs serving as drinking water sources are surrounded by fire, as was the case with the fires that ravaged northern California in October 2017.
Another source of work is levee projects, as potential flooding is a serious concern, says Selby.
“We have so many reservoirs, lakes, and rivers because we get so much rainfall,” he adds. “We have the Sierra Nevada Mountains that have a huge snowpack. Northern California is feeding Southern California most of its water supply and also providing agricultural crops, rice, and wine for the world.”
Under normal circumstances, “we let the dust settle on fires and don’t contact agencies for about a month,” says Selby. “Wildfires in California normally happen in August, not in October where we have winter setting in really fast. Within a couple of days, I was contacted by Jack Broadbent at Caltrans headquarters, telling me to get ready. There were 50 miles of freeways impacted by this fire that spread out over multiple counties.”
In the meantime, he secured a second contract, a joint effort between the city of Santa Rosa and California’s North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Selby’s team began immediate assessments for the two-phase project. “I was designing the jobs as we went,” he says.
Selby mapped off the affected area with a Google Earth-based GIS software to identify areas he believed needed concentrated work. He overlaid a map of the city of Santa Rosa with a terrain map showing tributaries and waterways as well as a Cal Fire burn severity map.
“I started driving around and flying drones, taking a look at the impact on watersheds, creeks, streams, and roadways and came up with a plan based off of that,” notes Selby. Crews worked 7 days a week, 14 hours a day, installing the measures necessary to stabilize affected areas.
Selby knew immediately he wanted to use a bonded fiber matrix.
“Fires like this create a lot of nitrogen in the soil,” he says, adding that fertilizers are usually unnecessary.
While a quarter- to half-inch of soil was burned throughout most of the area, underneath it was “soft, beautiful soil” that would absorb water, says Selby.
“We wanted something that’s going to have structure to it, so we applied hydromulch,” he says. His company applied 4,000 pounds of EarthGuard Fiber Matrix as well as an approved native seed blend.
Three weeks after the first phase of the application in early November, following some rains, “everything we did was growing and green, and the ponding water was clear as day,” says Selby.
To execute the job, Selby enlisted the help of Corey Huwa, owner of Arnold’s Custom Seeding in Colorado, with whom he’s worked on other projects.
“When this fire broke out, everybody in California was slammed busy with contract work,” says Selby. Huwa’s company was wrapping up some of its seasonal pipeline work and was able to provide additional equipment and human resources.
Huwa also is a star of a Pop TV reality program, Cash Cowboys. “They filmed an episode with me and Corey in the Santa Rose fires,” says Selby.
A second phase for Selby’s company entailed erosion control work at large reservoirs in Sonoma County. As he wrapped up most of the northern California fire work, Selby was preparing for post-fire erosion control for the Nevada County Wind Complex fire.
“It took out about 415 homes and is more typical of the fire work we’ve done in recent years,” notes Selby. A structure fire can often leave toxins in the soil from burning household and building products, posing a significant threat water quality.
“Rainwater hits it, taking these toxins into our streets and gutters and running into the storm drains,” says Selby. “We typically wait for the for the structures to be removed while doing a little bit of erosion control up front—maybe some perimeter wattles for containment. They test the soil for toxins after the structure and concrete pads are removed. When we get a green light, we do the erosion control on the house pad and anything around it that was impacted to ensure there is no runoff.”
Going forward, Selby’s company is using LSC Environmental Products’ Posi-Shell, a blend of clay binders, reinforcing fibers, and Portland cement mixed with water to create a spray-applied mortar that dries as a form of a thin, durable stucco.
Selby’s team has worked with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to apply the product—typically used as landfill cover—over burned structures.
“It sealed up 100% of the toxins through rain events until cleanup crews arrived,” says Selby. “It’s never been done before. I think it’s going to be a new precedent for what California does in the future, because now you’re not behind the eight-ball in a situation where we’ve got to get these things cleaned up—because if it rains, we’re poisoning our water supply. The FINN equipment handles the product without any issues.”