There are two lessons fire officials want residents to know after last year’s fire season: wildfire is not always bad and the areas that burned are now thriving.
Bright green shrubs and grasses flourish underneath black trees on the mountainsides where the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain wildfires burned around 120,000 acres in Payson Canyon near the Nebo Loop Scenic Byway.
“There’s a lot of areas that did not burn,” said Paul Gauchay, a safety and health officer with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “People can still come up here and enjoy the National Forest.”
He pointed out several untouched places across the mountain that did not burn when the Bald Mountain Fire sparked to life in late August and the Pole Creek Fire began in early September last year.
The two wildfires started by lightning strikes and ferocious winds quickly drove the fires beyond the control of monitoring firefighters. More than 6,000 people evacuated from Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge and several smaller communities including Covered Bridge at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon.
But abundant snowfall and torrents of spring rain, along with a mild start to summer, turned the blackened groves into blooming thickets. During a media tour of Payson Canyon on Tuesday, officials emphasized that wildfire is natural and necessary for the mountains.
“These ecosystems need fire. They absolutely have to have fire as part of their natural evolution,” said Tyler Thompson, the program director at Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative.
He and his teams have worked since 2006 to protect watersheds before and after wildfires across the state. A watershed is defined as an area of land that separates water flowing to different rivers and streams.
Although fires burn away undergrowth that keeps soil in place, the flames also eliminate invasive plants like cheatgrass and leave room for officials to sow native seeds.
Robby Edgel, a Department of Natural Resources habitat restoration biologist, said the cost to reseed the entire fire area was too expensive. But the department spent $1.4 million to reseed more than 34,630 acres with blue bunchgrass, slender wheatgrass, western wheatgrass and other forbs.
“You start to see some of it come up,” he said as he pointed out plants sprouting among the ashes. “We’re also seeing a lot of the natural vegetation like oak brush popping up.”
The intensity and size of recent fires happen because of too much undergrowth build up in the last century, he explained, and that’s why fire officials use controlled burns and natural starting fires to help reduce the available fuels.
Aspens, oak and maple trees are among the most resilient species, while conifers and cheatgrass are the most flammable species, said Guy Wilson with the U.S. Forest Service. Wildfires help give resilient plants an advantage over other undergrowth, which in turn helps fortify the soil against future fires.
Of the 120,000 total acres, around 82% of the land burned with low or moderate severity. Only 4% burned with high intensity, and at least 14% of the area didn’t burn at all, including Payson Lakes Campground. Those numbers come from the Burned Area Emergency Response team survey conducted after the wildfire.
“We’ve got to have fire back in these systems or else we’re going to keep seeing fires like this over and over again,” Thompson said.
One ecosystem severely impacted by the fires are fish systems in the area. Officials believe around eight fish colonies were killed by ash and sediment plumes from the two wildfires.
Chris Crockett, the regional aquatic program manager of the Division of Wildlife Resources, said it may take a few years for the fisheries to recover. In the meantime, the division is partnering with Brigham Young University students to analyze the effects wildfires have on watershed water chemistry.
Wildlife are typically unaffected by fires, and will move away when a fire is burning. The new growth will then attract more wildlife like deer, elk, turkeys, bears and mountain lions into the area, Gauchay said.
The Department of Agriculture and Food is planning to put in at least 10 miles of fencing for ranchers who hope to return to the area sometime next year, said official Ashley Longmore.
She added that the Department of Wildlife Resources offered some land to local ranchers who are unable to get on the mountain as fencing is rebuilt.
“Fire does so much to the land to rehabilitation forging for wildlife and for livestock,” she said. “While most ranchers are put out for a couple of years, it’s pretty exciting to come back in two or three years and come back and see what it’s done.”