SALT LAKE CITY — The wildfires that burned throughout Utah during 2018 made headlines due to the large amount of acres burned and several community evacuations. A total of 1,314 wildfires were reported in Utah last year, burning nearly 486,000 acres.
Now more than six months after the fires, biologists are still seeing the impacts on fish, wildlife and their habitat areas. With the added heavy snow pack and upcoming spring runoff in burn scar areas, here is a look at some of the potential effects on Utah’s wildlife, habitat, fisheries and which areas are the most vulnerable.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) habitat biologists said that the areas burned by the Pole Creek/Bald Mountain, Dollar Ridge and Goose Creek fires are the biggest areas of concern for erosion from spring runoff.
In an effort to rehabilitate these areas, over 1 million pounds of seed from the Great Basin Research Center in Ephraim were distributed on these and several other fire areas, covering roughly 85,000 acres, in conjunction with Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative.
Erosion control structures have also been installed in some areas to help reduce sediment from entering into streams.
“Seventeen fire areas throughout the state were rehabilitated this past fall to help the ecosystem recover properly and as quickly as possible,” according to habitat conservation coordinator Daniel Eddington.
“However, the extent of the erosion damage in the coming months will depend on whether Utah experiences a warm spring that causes the snowpack to melt quickly or if there is a more gradual warmup and the snowpack slowly melts,” he said.
Although crews have worked to mitigate erosion in the long term, DWR Habitat Restoration Biologist Robby Edgel said most of the plants that were seeded last fall have not yet grown enough to fully reduce erosion in the event of high spring runoff.
“There are major concerns for erosion, especially for communities and fisheries near steep slopes that burned in these fires,” Edgel said. “The best thing we can hope for is a slow melt, but the conditions look very troubling so far.”
After a fire, the habitat recovery time depends on several factors including the intensity and temperature of the fire, slope, pre-fire vegetation type, the presence of invasive weeds and the elevation, Eddington said.
While some high-elevation areas with a lot of aspen trees can see new tree shoots a few weeks after a fire, other low-elevation habitats that primarily have sagebrush can take several years for the sagebrush to grow again on that landscape.
“Most burned areas take three-to-five years to completely fill in with vegetation,” Edgel said, “and they will have flooding concerns during that time.” “Streams that are eroded due to high flows from spring runoff can become disconnected from their floodplain for decades,” Eddington said.
However, many ecosystems in Utah require wildfire and have adapted to fire. “These events help to shape the ecosystem functions and processes, which can be very beneficial to several wildlife species,” Eddington said.
The fisheries that were most impacted by the recent wildfires were the Strawberry River, which was severely damaged by the Dollar Ridge Fire, and the Diamond Fork drainage area, which was heavily damaged from the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires.
The Strawberry River has been a popular brown trout fishery, but virtually all the fish were killed by flash floods, ash flows and pH changes during the aftermath of the fire, DWR Aquatics Section Chief Drew Cushing said.
The Diamond Fork area was also a popular brown trout fishery, but anglers will not be able to enjoy both areas until stream bank and fire scare stabilization has occurred.
“While the ash runoff doesn’t typically last very long, it can reduce the fish population for several years,” Eddington said. “The reduced water quality can also have impacts on municipal water supplies.”
Cushing recommended that anglers check fishing conditions and contact regional fisheries managers before heading up to fish in an area that may have been impacted by the wildfires.
“While habitats and fisheries can see negative results, high-elevation wildfires during the summer can actually be very beneficial for wildlife,” DWR Wildlife Section Chief Justin Shannon said. The fires often remove trees and old vegetation, allowing for young grasses, forbs and shrubs to grow which provide more food for wildlife. Many of those young plants are more nutritious and beneficial for big game animals.
“The wildlife will move to other areas during a fire, but they return when the grasses and forbs begin to grow back,” Shannon said. “I have seen deer and elk move back into a burned area in the fall following a fire in the spring.”
However, low-elevation fires can have negative impacts if they burn sagebrush areas, which don’t recover from fires as well. Those areas are typically where deer and elk range during the winter months. If those areas are destroyed, it can have negative consequences for big game animals.
“Once burned areas have started to see new growth, animals are typically attracted to those areas, making them good wildlife viewing locations,” Shannon said.
However, hunters and people hiking in burn scar areas should be very careful because dead trees (snags) can fall and there is more potential for erosion and flash flooding following rainstorms. People should also make sure not to walk or drive in areas that are undergoing habitat restoration.
How to help
What can the public do to help with wildfire restoration efforts and fire prevention? Leann Fox, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands communications and prevention coordinator, shared a few tips:
1. Stay on legal roads and trails to avoid impacting any habitat restoration in burn scar areas that have been reseeded;
2. Never drive or park over dry grass or brush. Exhaust systems and other vehicle equipment can get hot enough to start fires;
3. Because many of Utah’s wildfires are started by vehicles on highways, make sure that vehicle maintenance is always up to date and make sure there is no loose or dragging equipment;
4. Be extra cautious when target shooting;
5. Always keep a campfire small and clear the surrounding area of any flammable material. Always fully extinguish the campfire before leaving an area;
6. Before burning debris on personal property, a permit must be obtained and weather conditions should be checked prior to the burn;
7. Remember, fireworks are illegal on all state and federal lands, so do not use fireworks anywhere except in designated areas and seasons.