Bozeman’s water supply less vulnerable to fire


According to Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, all of the trees in this picture that are not painted orange would be cut down as part of the Bozeman Watershed logging project. Photo by Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.

The Gallatin National Forest’s Bozeman Watershed Logging Project has been the subject of much debate and commenting here at the blog.   Well, it appears as if the next chapter of the story has been written, as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle took another look at the issue in this morning’s paper.  Excerpts from the article are highlighted below [emphasis added]:

This summer’s Millie fire prompted renewed calls for thinning the forests south of Bozeman to protect the city’s water supply from fire. However, upgrades to the water plant are nullifying the argument that the water supply needs protection.  The Bozeman water plant’s antiquated filtration system, built in 1984, couldn’t filter much more sediment than what is carried by the streams on a normal day. Any increase in the amount of sediment in Bozeman or Hyalite creeks was a source of concern.

But that will change when a new $43 million system comes online in a little more than a year, said water treatment supervisor Rick Moroney. Construction started a year ago.  “It adds an important extra step – sedimentation – which makes it vastly superior,” Moroney said. “I can’t guarantee it could handle everything, but it will be able to handle the sediment from a fire.”

The new facility removes the urgency from one side’s argument in what is now a 2-year-old battle over a forest-thinning project.

In March 2010, the Gallatin National Forest published its Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project, a plan devised with the city to harvest, thin and burn 4,800 acres in the Hyalite and Bozeman creek watersheds.

The $2 million project had the stated objective of protecting the watersheds that provide 80 percent of the city’s summer water supply from being polluted after a severe fire. But wildfire doesn’t pose the only risk to water quality.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and the Native Ecosystems Council opposed the project because more than seven miles of new logging roads would be required, and such roads can add as much sediment to area streams as a fire….

Hydrologist Mark Story said decades of research show roads are responsible for 90 percent of the sediment produced during logging. The groups argued thinning wouldn’t prevent a wildfire, which would add still more sediment.  “There’s no science that will fireproof a watershed,” said Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We have no problem with thinning as long as they can do it without building roads that are just as bad for the watershed.


27 thoughts on “Bozeman’s water supply less vulnerable to fire”

  1. “opposed the project because more than seven miles of new logging roads would be required, and such roads can add as much sediment to area streams as a fire”

    Not even remotely true…

    • I guess the key word is “can”; perhaps they “could” if they weren’t required to follow laws and BMPs.

      With BMP’s on roads, I’ve never seen anything like this, from the Hayman Fire,

      • WOW! Did anyone not know that such a road, going up a gully in a burned area would not be an long term erosion problem?!? This is one of those never, ever situations. Unfortunately, I have seen worse, where a “tilled landing at the bottom of a gully was washed away, completely. I had to do a BMP monitoring report on it, and was very critical of a Sale Administrator’s decisions. It was not well received by my boss.

      • Sure Matt…15 years of field experience in forest hydrology mostly studying and researching erosion process in small, headwater catchments in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. A B.S. in Geology (UM), a M.S. in Forest Soils (U. of Colorado) and a PhD in Forest Hydrology (Oregon State). Come on man…you should know the literature as well as common field observations if you truly want to speak knowledgably about erosion processes in forest environments. If not, here are a couple papers to get your started.
        Rashin, E.B., Clishe, C.J., Loch, A.T., Bell, J.M., 2006. Effectiveness of timber harvest practices for controlling sediment related water quality impacts. Journal of The American Water Resources Association 42, 1307-1327.
        Sugden, B.D., Woods, S.W., 2007. Sediment Production From Forest Roads in Western Montana. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 43, 193-206.
        Elliot, W., Hall, D., Graves, S., 1999. Predicting Sedimentation From Forest Roads. Journal of Forestry, 7.
        Megahan, W.F., Molitor, D.C., 1975. Erosional Effects of Wildfire and Logging in Idaho. American Society of Civil Engineers P 423-444 (1975) 9 FIG, 4 TAB, 18 REF.
        Robichaud, P.R., Beyers, J.L., Neary, D.G., 2000. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Postfire Rehabilitation Treatments. In: Service, U.F. (Ed.). Rocky Mountain Research Station, p. 85p.
        Beyers, J.L., Neary, D.G., Ryan, K.C., DeBano, L.F., Rocky Mountain Research Station (Fort Collins Colo.), 2005. Wildland fire in ecosystems
        Effects of fire on soil and water. In, General technical report RMRS GTR-42-v. 4. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO, pp. vii, 250 p.
        DeBano, L.F., 1998. The role of fire and soil heating on water repellency in wildland environments: a review. Journal of Hydrology 231-232, 12.
        DeBano, L.F., 1990. The effects of fire on soil properties. In, Symposium on Management and Productivity of Western-Montane Forest Soils, Boise, ID.
        Lakell, W.A., Aust, W.M., Bolding, C.M., Dolloff, C.A., Keyser, P., Feldt, R., 2010. Sediment Trapping by Streamside Management Zones of Various Widths after Forest Harvest and Site Preparation. Society of American Foresters 56, 541-551.
        Pannkuk, C.D., Robichaud, P.R., 2003. Effectiveness of needle cast at reducing erosion after forest fires. Water Resources Research 39, 9p.
        Boyer, D.E., Dell, J.D., 1980. Fire Effects on Pacific Northwest Forest Soils. In: Service, F., Region, P.N., Management, W., Management, A.a.F. (Eds.), p. 59p.
        Radek, K.J., Soil erosion following wildfires on the Okanogan National Forest – initial monitoring results. In: Forest, O.N., USDA, Service, F. (Eds.)
        Spigel, K.M., Robichaud, P.R., 2007. First-year post-fire erosion rates in Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. Hydrological Processes 21, 998-1005.

  2. All the literature cites in the world won’t change the reality, as seen by myself and most field people in the intermountain northwest, that roads and stream crossings and blown-out culverts ( required to service the roads and logging) are the major silt and sediment creators in logging areas, new ones and old.
    Of course, much can and should be done to minimize this erosion and sediment, but we all know that people are fallible. Mistakes are made. Or a violent storm catches a roadway before the proper control measures are put in place. Or an early winter storm snows you out before the “put-to-bed” work is accomplished. These are all real threats, as compared to the possible, future wildfire that might create some sediment.
    With this new sediment catchment for the municipal water system, the urgent need to log is gone. Leave it alone!

    • Ed,

      I don’t advicate for this logging. Your points are valid. What I was trying to identify as false in the statement that roads can creat as much sediment as wildfires. What every scale you want to look at, landscape or watershed, sediment yields post fire are orders of magnitude higher than that of post road construction. Do you disagree?

      • Smokey — I’m going to go all technical on you for a moment.

        Measured in terms of tons of sediment/acre affected (all else being held equal, e.g., slope & soil type), road erosion exceeds post-fire erosion. That is, an acre of road prism will yield more soil movement than an acre burned, even at the highest burn intensities.

        • It is more complex than that. Some areas that burn are places where roads would never be built. You cannot assume that well designed roads will produce as much sediment as a poorly designed road built in a highly-erodible place. Additionally, comparisons must be made with recently-maintained roads. Sure, it is easy to make claims of high erosion and sedimentation from roads that haven’t been maintained, due to a lack of timber projects. That would be like comparing an overgrazed then burned landscape with a poorly designed and maintained road. (However, this does not change the fact that there are crappy roads out there.)

        • Thats just the thing Andy, “All else being held equal”. They typically never are in natural systems. Was this road just constructed? Is it an only road or gated? Is this road closed and completely vegetaed? Plot scale measures are one thing, but the original quote I was argueing wasn’t talking about plot scale expirements. They were speaking on watershed level terms and in that sense, the statement is not supported by either science or field observations.

          Road drainage can be controlled through design. Burnt hillslopes are a completely different thing so when we want to talk about sediment contrbuting to a stream network, particularly in the case of this project, a wild life in the watershed would contribute significantly more sediment than a road systems from a logging operation. Particularly the one that has been designed for this project.

          • Is it not true that “research” shows that sediment dumped from upland roads, that have waterbars at 300′-400′ spacing, travels a maximum of 200′ before being filtered by the forest floor? The nearest the closest temporary road on this pruject is to a stream is 1/4 mile-horizontal(not slope).Look, on page 39 of chapter 3 (enviro effects) of the EIS you’ll see that the alternative A(no action) “natural sediment” load on Bozeman creek is 354 tons/year and existing road sediment(from a closed streamside access road) is 27 tons/year. Alternative B (proposed action alternative) estimates their would be NO additional road sediment and only 9 tons/year from “thinning”, until returning to background levels within a few years. All this litigation for adding 2.5% of “natural” background sediment for a few years. So, there would be NO additional road born sediment on either Bozeman OR Hyalite creek. Unless of course, you think the USFS is lying about this. Do you people even read these EIS’s before litigating?

            • I just sent an email to the reporter in the above Chronicle story, and realized I made a mistake. Alternative 1 is the “no action,” and Alternative 6 was the chosen alterantive(I called them Alt A and B-which was alt.2). Alt. 6 produces even less sediment than Alt. 2. On Hyalite Creek, the “natural background is 533 tons of sediment yield/year. Alt. 6 would add,in the peak year of logging, only an additional 2.5 tons of “road sediment”. Or only .41% above natural sediment levels. 2.5 tons is about a “quarter load” of a typical dump truck. You know the kind, they’re the kind of trucks the county uses to dump “sand” on hyalite Canyon road in the winter. Begs the question of how many dump truck loads of sand the county dumps on the road, and eventually into the creek. In addition, only 5.3 tons of “timber thinning” sediment would be added…or 1% above natural levels.

              Lets hope the Chronicle reporter does a story telling the public the real truth about how much sediment the project would produce instead of relying on hype from Garrity. I would like to hear this Mark Story’s response to the EIS documentation. This is like shooting fish in a barrell.

              • And let’s hope the Chronicle tells the public the real truth about how much sediment reduction this project would yield. According to an internal email from the Forest Hydrologist:

                The BMW implemented assumes that the BMW treated
                acres are totally within the wildfire area so the reduced
                %>natural figures are probably an over estimation of
                potential sediment reduction since the wildfires would burn
                areas outside of BMW treatment boundaries and not all areas
                within BMW treatment areas would be subjected to wildfire.

                Bottom line is that the BMW project, if fully implemented,
                could result in a modest reduction in sediment yields from a
                moderate to large size wildfire in either watershed. Since the
                sediment standard is 30% over natural for each drainage the
                resulting sediment yields would still be well over standard and
                pose a challenge to the Bozeman Municipal Water Treatment

            • “All this litigation for adding 2.5% of “natural” background sediment for a few years.”

              The litigation is not entirely based on sediment loading. There are Endangered Species Act claims involved, but it has seemed most prudent to talk about the water plant and filtering issues before delving into wildlife.

      • Smokey, isn’t much of the erosion following a wildfire the result of (or at least greatly exacerbated by) the road network, inadequately sized culverts, poor road maintenance pre-fire, etc?

        • If salvage logging begins quickly, roads can be brought up to functional standards, paid for with dead trees. Also, road failures are often caused by plugged culverts, caused by hazard tree chunks and debris. Also putting Federal lands at risk are the impacts that travel across property lines, from heavy-handed salvage logging on private land.

          When 150,000 cubic yards of rock and debris came down the mountain, blocking the north fork of the Boise River, in 1995, eco-groups rushed in to court, seeking an injunction against salvage logging. A helicopter ride convinced the Judge that salvage logging had nothing to do with it. The weather event was called a “microburst”,

          Getting fine material on the ground, following a high-intensity burn, is important to reduce increased erosion on barren ground. Cutting some of the trees also reduces rill erosion. Even in a green forest, minimal rill erosion is commonly seen at the base of many trees. Just as there are good reasons to leave snags after a fire, there are also good reasons to cut some of the snags, as well. Every little twig on the ground holds back some soil, at some point.

    • Ed, I like the fact that you are talking about on the ground actions , which are open to all of us to investigate and verify in our own areas. I think we may know something about how prevalent mistakes are and how to keep them from happening, which would inform this discussion. My opinion is that folks should do some transparent monitoring and continuous improvement process, Then we would have some data to support the relevant claims.
      Perhaps this is an idea We All Can Agree On.

      It is altogether possible, knowing the FS, that some areas are very good and others are not so good.

      Colorado is very different from Montana, but in Colorado the article I quoted above (comment #6) said:

      The work in Trail Creek is helping restore the watershed’s natural storage capacity, which is healthier for the ecosystem and cheaper than dredging. “It’s about $29 a ton to dredge [the sediment] out of the reservoir versus about $2 a ton to keep it in place,” said Dave Rosgen, stream-restoration hydrologist working on the Hayman Restoration Project. “It’s cheaper by an order of magnitude to keep it here.” Additionally, it reduces the adverse effects on river systems. Higher sediment loads cause greater flood risks and decrease fish habitat as the streams get wider and shallower, and water temperatures warm.

      Certainly fires are in the future as opposed to right now, but I’m it seems like the area will burn sooner or later. and if we somehow managed it to keep from burning at all, wouldn’t that be more “unnatural” than managing for less destructive fires?

  3. This must be why the Bozeman City Commissioners recently issued a press release condemning the Forest Service for wanting to do inustrial logging in their watershed. Oops, I’m sorry, the press release, issued two weeks ago,was about the Commisioners filing a “freinds of the court” breif supporting the Forest Service in the lawsuit filed by radical enviros. Strange how the reporter didn’t interview them? Hmmm. I guess they must be lackeys of big timber, just like the 85% of Montanans who want more logging in the state. The perversion of these “bedrock enviro laws,” which make east and west coast enviros feel good about themselves, has led to concentrating the power into the hands of the few. I don’t call it democracy when the fringe element can usurp the will of the majority.

    If anyone ever bothered to look at the “project maps” or drive the area, they would see that all “temporary roads” are located 500 “verticle” feet above the nearest stream. Up on the ridges between Hyalite and Bozeman creek. I can’t think of one “stream crossing” anywhere. But then why let such technical matters get in the way of passionate dogma.

    Frankly, upper Hyalite canyon and the divide between the two creeks has been fireproofed by all the clearcutting done in the 60’s and 70’s. The stuff clearcut in the 60’s, with one pre-commercial entry,is almost ready for a commercial thinning (many of the “unit” in the timber sale call for that). These stands are loaded with 8-9″ DBH trees, which is marginally merchantable. Frankly, most of the timber the USFS sells in Montana is classified as “non-sawtimber” which is what this is-only about 10% is classified as “sawtimber” For all the hubris lately about finding markets for “small diameter trees”, the Montana timber industry has been doing just that for many years now. Now, when the fires do cross the divide from Cottonwood Canyon some day, do you suppose the bright reporter will notice that the regen clearcuts stopped it? Will they thank the loggers they once condemned? It’s really too bad that the loggers cut out all that old growth. Some of the biggest lodgepole I’ve ever seen is in the uncut portions of Hyalite. Amidst all the deadfall from repeated MPB epidemics over the last 30 years and all the ladder fuel from the young “piss fir” in the understory, it would have been best to really see a conflagration cook off Bozeman’s “afternoon playground”. It would be best if a fire cooked through now while under litigation. Perhaps then the Bozeman Chronicle editorial board, which has also endorsed the timber sale, would stop being kind to the radicals and instead openly condemn them. Me gots a feeling that some day the Board along with the Missoulian editorial board will endorse a “timber rider” that would make such timber sale “not subject to judicial review.” Perhaps language could be added to asuage the squimish. Something along the lines of ” not subject to judicial review…”unless the majority of county commisioners of said affected county or the majority of abutting landowners vote to “open” the timber sale to judical review.” That would enable the majority to take back what is there’s from the fringe element. Put that in your little brass pipe and smoke it.

    • Derek,

      Do you consider anyone that files a lawsuit against a timber sale to be “radical”? You consistently attempt to marginalize groups that sue over timber sales, but the truth is that the vast majority of timber sales go through without litigation. Only the most egregious are being opposed. There is nothing radical about opposing 1% of all timber sales in court.

      Take a look again at the internal FOIA document that says the project would only result in modest sediment reduction. Combine that with the idea that the new filter system is rendering the project unneeded. Combine that with the latest science that says thinning doesn’t prevent large fires. What is left?

      I may not be speaking for the majority, but I would prefer not to spend my time on this blog countering what I consider to be overblown rhetoric about east and west coast radicals, perversion of enviro laws, and the need to pass riders on discredited timber sales. If you have science or substance I’m all for it.

      • John, you know I’m a bit of a stickler for language. When you say “the latest science says thinning doesn’t prevent large fires”, I don’t think you’re saying that “the latest science says that fuels reduction treatments do not affect fire behavior”..which is really the issue of concern, based on the ROD.

        Let’s go a little deeper, what specific statements do you disagree with in the ROD?
        Below I quoted the purpose and need from the ROD, here’s the link:

        Protection of the municipal water supply for Bozeman:
        The Bozeman Municipal Watershed project is designed to strategically modify vegetative fuel conditions using thinning and prescribed fire to lower the risk of severe, extensive wildfires in the Bozeman Municipal Watershed, thereby reducing the risk of excess sediment and ash reaching the municipal water treatment plant. Thinning and prescribed burning will reduce crown fire potential, thus reducing the rate of fire spread. Thinning will reduce ladder fuels which allow fire, when it starts, to reach and spread through the crowns of dense stands of trees.
        Fire behavior modeling and field inventory indicate that fuel conditions in key areas near the water treatment plant, diversion point at Hyalite, and along the streams, if left untreated, are highly likely to support large and severe wildfires (USFS 2003).
        Ash and sediment from a major wildfire in Bozeman and/or Hyalite Creeks would be a major source of contamination to Bozeman‟s water supply. A wildfire of large and severe extent in Hyalite or Bozeman watersheds could result in a loss of water supply from a few days to several weeks. Furthermore, the duration of the effects could last up to 2 years following a major wildfire, in the event of heavy rainfall in the drainages.
        This would directly affect the water supply for Bozeman. At the very least, water would need to be rationed from the storage tank on the east side of Bozeman if a temporary shutdown of the treatment plant was needed. This source could supply about three days of drinking water, under conservative use. If a prolonged shutdown was necessary, bottled water would be needed to supply drinking water to Bozeman residents until the treatment plant resumed operation.
        It is important to realize that reducing crown fire potential is probably the most important factor in this decision to prevent detrimental effects from high severity fire such as increased sediment delivery into the watershed. The most effective strategy for reducing crown fire occurrence and severity is to (1) reduce surface fuels, (2) increase canopy base height (CBH)1, (3) reduce crown bulk density (CBD), and (4) reduce continuity of the forest canopy (Graham et al. 2004 pp 23-24). Treatments in this decision were designed to affect those changes by reducing surface fuels and continuity of ladder and crown fuels in the treatment units. The treatments identified in each of the units focuses on the existing fuel composition. The effect of treatment prescriptions is to reduce fuels both vertically and horizontally; to reduce total crown density and ladder fuels; and to reduce surface fuel loading (FEIS, pp 3-4 through 3-10). The thinning treatment and subsequent harvest of larger size trees is necessary to achieve the proper crown spacing in the dense, continuous forest canopy. The thinning will remove a majority of less fire resistant species such as lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, leaving the larger, more fire resistant Douglas-fir. Removal of trees is one of the tools to meet the purpose and need of this project; it is not the purpose of the project.
        Reduce fuels along road corridors to provide safer conditions for fire-fighting and evacuation in the event of a wildfire:
        Both the Bozeman and Hyalite Creek road systems are potential evacuation corridors for the recreating public in the area. Hyalite is the most heavily used recreation area on the Gallatin National Forest.

        Record of Decision
        Forest, with up to 2,000 vehicles per day on a busy summer weekend. At the same time, these roads would be the access routes for incoming firefighters and equipment to fight a fire or respond to an emergency. The primary roads are essentially a one-way in, one-way out situation in both drainages. The corridors are often narrow and winding with few places to pull off the road or turn vehicles around. There is a need to strategically reduce fuels along these corridors in order to change fire behavior and change a crown fire to a surface type fire r to provide safer conditions for fire-fighting efforts and public evacuation. In a national survey, nearly 80% of all wildland firefighters identified fuel reduction as the single-most important factor for improving their margin of safety on wildland fires (Tri-Data 1996).
        Reduce the risk of high intensity wildfire spreading from National Forest System lands onto private lands that border these watersheds:
        Intense wildfire produces embers or firebrands, which are the primary cause of home ignition during wildland fire events. Fuel reduction through thinning and prescribed fire also reduces the risk of high intensity firebrand exposure within the WUI adjacent to National Forest System lands in the project area (Cohen, personnel communication; BMW field trip, August 2009).
        Heavy forest fuels in the WUI, steep terrain, prevailing winds and long term drought all contribute to the likelihood of wildfire spreading either from National Forest lands to private lands or from private lands onto the National Forest. The entire analysis area is WUI, as delineated by the Gallatin County Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP 2008). Fuels reduction in the WUI will improve the probability of successful control and suppression of wildfires (FEIS, pp 1-13 and 1-14).
        This project also responds to specific policy and Gallatin Forest Plan direction directing the Forest Service to take action to protect municipal watersheds and wildland urban interface areas from wildfire. That direction is summarized here.
        The National Fire Plan (2000) assigns highest priority for hazardous fuel reduction to communities at risk and municipal watersheds where conditions favor the high liklihood for severe and intense wildfires. The Cohesive Strategy (USDA, 2000) focuses on priorities of the National Fire Plan: wildland-urban interface, municipal watersheds, threatened and endangered species habitat, and maintenance of areas that currently have low risk of catastrophic fire. The Healthy Forest Initiative (2004) and Healthy Forests Restoration Act (2004) also promote the reduction of fire risks in the wildland urban interface and at-risk municipal watersheds.
        The Gallatin Forest Plan assigns the following standards and goals central to the purpose, need and primary issues associated with this project.
        In watersheds with intermingled landownership, efforts will be made to develop mutually agreeable watershed management direction (FP pp II-5, II-24).
        In municipal watersheds, such as Bozeman, Hyalite, and Lyman Creek drainages, all project activities will be implemented to ensure State water quality standards will be met. Coordination with City of Bozeman officials and the State Water Quality Bureau [now Montana DEQ] will be done throughout the project planning process

        • Sharon,

          We might have a difference of opinion. I think the issue of concern, based on the ROD, is sediment loading after a large fire. The FS has proposed the project because it was supposedly going to reduce the amount of sediment. The ROD went so far as to say that we (I live next to the project) might be drinking bottled water if the project didn’t go forward.

          An internal email from the Forest Hydrologist said that the EIS overestimated the amount of sediment that would be reduced by the project. He also said:

          Bottom line is that the BMW project, if fully implemented,
          could result in a modest reduction in sediment
          yields from a moderate to large size wildfire in either
          watershed. Since the sediment standard is 30%
          over natural for each drainage the resulting sediment yields
          would still be well over standard and pose a
          challenge to the Bozeman Municipal Water Treatment Plant.

          Note that he said “could result,” not would result. And even if the project went forward, the resulting sediment yields would still pose a challenge to the water treatment plant.

          So let me get this straight: the Forest Service is scaring the hell out of people–telling them we were going to be drinking bottled water–while simultaneously pushing for a fuel treatment project that overestimated the amount of sediment that would be reduced? And it wouldn’t matter if the project went forward because the end result would be the water treatment plant would be challenged either way.

  4. Without an intimate on-the-ground review of all aspects of this issue (which I have not done nor will do) I and most of the rest of commentors are coming from past experiences and likely some bias.
    My view is this:
    If there are no stream crossings,
    and if the slopes in the lower 1/3 of the drainages are not “too” steep,
    and if there are no sidehill roads or skid roads within 500′ of any stream (as noted above), and if they have extreme project management control and serious efforts are made to prevent screw-ups (I said prevent, not minimize),
    and if the soils are not classified as highly erosive,
    and if the locals who use that water are in favor of the logging, then go forward and “do good”.

    My one past experience with a USFS proposal to log a municipal watershed here in north Idaho a few decades back caused an uproar from the users, to the point where a Senator from Idaho took note. He applied the political pressure to stop the plan. The watershed remains unlogged and unburned as far as I know, and the downstream users are happy.

    Maybe if the Forest (or the contractor) put up a bond that would guarantee monetary reparations to the water entity if the roads or logging caused damage to their system, it might provide an incentive to do a REALLY good job!


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