It is raining straw over Utah’s Markagunt Plateau this week as helicopter crews drop mulch on the worst burn spots from the Brian Head fire.
The month-long blaze that scorched 71,700 acres in and around Dixie National Forest left Yankee Meadows, a popular destination for fishing and camping five miles west of Panguitch Lake, blanketed in ash among thousands of blackened posts that used to be living conifers.
Using nets draped under helicopters on Wednesday, crews distributed straw on slopes above the alpine meadow, which features a campground and reservoir. The mulch will speed germination of seeds that were sown over the area by air last week and protect them by absorbing the impact of rain drops, according to Dixie spokeswoman Kacy Ellsworth.
“We use straw so [water] has something to grab on to as it flows downhill,” Ellsworth said.
Allegedly ignited by illegal weed burning on June 17 outside the fire’s namesake resort town, the flames also destroyed 13 homes, scorched 6,514 private acres and soaked up $36 million worth of human sweat and toil, aircraft time and fuel, countless gallons of fire-inhibiting chemical slurry and other suppression costs.
Now, the Dixie is spending another $3.8 million on an initial wave of treatments aimed at stabilizing soils in places that are at greatest risk of releasing destructive debris flows in flooding and mudslides.
”We want the treatments on the ground before the first damaging rain storm, at least no later than one year after the fire,” said Forest Service hydrologist Brendan Waterman. “The fire died down [in mid-July] right when monsoon season kicked it.”
Already floods have hit, but it is not clear they were caused by the fire, according to Ellsworth.
While the fire was still burning in early July, the Forest Service dispatched a Burned-Area Emergency Response, or BAER, team, led by Waterman, to assess the damage and recommend actions. In less than two weeks, the team produced a string of reports on hydrology, fisheries, soils, vegetation and habitat in the area, that will help guide restoration strategies now under way.
By laying down mats of mulch, officials hope to minimize erosion and potential threats to roads, water supplies and fisheries.
The burn area covers a variety of terrain in elevations ranging from 11,044 feet above sea level on Sydney Peak to 7,059 feet in Center Creek, the BAER report says. Within the perimeter are 123 miles of roads and 55 of non-motorized trails; and 14 separate watersheds with some 60 miles of year-round streams, 19 miles of intermittent streams and 122 miles of streams that only fill seasonally.
The lands did not not burn uniformly, the report says, with 12,000 acres left unburned. Another 12,000 experienced severe burning, 32,000 burned at moderate severity and 16,000 at low severity.
Forests that burn with high intensity can leave the soil “hydrophobic,” meaning it repels water so that precipitation sheets off without sinking into the ground. This makes it hard for plant life to recover, strips organic surface litter and worsens the erosive force of water.
About 61 percent of Brian Head’s burn perimeter experienced high to moderate soil burn severity, totaling 43,500 acres. The lands are at a particularly at risk for erosion especially if they are on steep slopes stripped of organic material and the soils are high in silt content.
The fire has probably destroyed two of the Markagunt Plateau’s three remnant populations of native Bonneville cutthroat trout, according to Dixie fish biologist Mike Golden, who wrote the fisheries report. That means the fire may have undone some of the Dixie’s recent and ongoing efforts to re-establish cutthroat populations.
Utah’s only native trout, cutthroat are the subject of various restoration projects needed to reverse their disappearance under pressure from rainbow, brown and other non-native trout favored by sportsmen.
Sport fisheries are also expected to suffer once ash and sediments loosened by the fire are washed into creeks. Restoration will reduce such impacts to watersheds but it will help if seeds take root soon.
Of special concern is Panguitch’s municipal water supply, according to the BAER report, thanks to loss of vegetation upslope from water sources that feed Panguitch and the Yankee Meadows Campground. Officials fear flowing debris could knock out or clog the town’s spring collection system or overwhelm the dam at Yankee Meadows Reservoir.
The restoration project targets just 5,604 acres, including 1,000 private and state-managed acres, mostly along the west edge of the burn perimeter. A hybrid triticale seed was strewn over the area by air between Aug. 17 and 25 and the acreage is now being covered by tons of straw, with more than 7,000 massive bales delivered to several helicopter staging areas.
The Dixie acquired 119,000 pounds of the triticale seed, a sterile cross between wheat and rye that germinates quickly and grows big. The purpose of planting it is not to revegetate the burned slopes, but to bolster the erosion-resisting effects of the mulch, according to Waterman.
“It will help keep the mulch in place,” Waterman said. “The second year, since it‘s sterile seed, it dies and falls over and adds to the mulch.”