Utah’s largest fire of 2020 torched the Uintas’ south slope, but it may have done some good

Ashley National Forest plans to log ponderosa grove killed in the 90,000-acre East Fork fire

(Photo courtesy of InciWeb) The East Fork Fire burns in the High Uintas Wilderness on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

It charred nearly 90,000 acres and burned for more than four months, making it Utah’s biggest, costliest fire last year. Yet the East Fork fire, sparked by lightning last August on the Uinta Mountains’ South Slope, hardly grabbed much media attention.

Much of the land burned was remote wilderness and the East Fork fire did not hold a match to the raging West Coast fires that seared their way into the annals of wildfire history.

The Utah fire did inflict serious damage around Moon Lake, a resort area where the flames claimed a prominent grove of ponderosa pine as well as private property, destroying several structures. Agencies spent at least $19 million fighting the fire after September’s epic windstorm drove the fire out of the High Uintas Wilderness into lower-elevation terrain.

“It’s been 80 years since that area burned at the top end of the High Uinta Wilderness. It was incredibly dense with fuel, either standing beetle-kill or dead and down,” said Louis Haynes, a spokesman for the Ashley National Forest. “In that aspect, we had a tale of two fires. The fire within the wilderness did what it’s supposed to do. It reduced the fuels, leading to regeneration and regrowth. The bad part is that it did come out of the wilderness during the freak windstorm we had during the fire.”

For property owners around Moon Lake, the East Fork fire was a disaster, but overall the flames may have improved forest conditions in the Rock Creek drainage, which had been hit hard by the bark beetle epidemic, according to forest officials.

“It was really apparent that the fire just moved around from dead tree to dead tree, so there’s a lot of green standing trees up there,” said District Ranger Kristi Groves, who oversees the part of the land that was burned. “There’s the occasional hot spot where it did burn a little bit more than it should. But in general, particularly up high, the fire did a really good job of helping clean up the area.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Human activity triggered a record 1,154 wildfires in Utah last year, or 77% of the total, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. But it was lightning, not people, that ignited Utah’s two largest fires which accounted for more than half the acreage burned. In addition to East Fork, the Canal Fire, sparked on June 27 in Millard County, scorched about 78,000 acres. In total, wildfire burned nearly 330,000 acres in Utah last year, double the 10-year average. About $77 million was spent fighting these fires.

But not all those acres burned equally.

According to the Forest Service’s burned-area analysis of the East Fork fire, for example, very little of the land within that fire’s perimeter was severely burned.

Only about 6% experienced “high severity” burn, while nearly half either burned at a low intensity or didn’t burn at all. Mapping of the analysis reveals a mosaic of burn effects, with the worst concentrated in lower elevations areas.

Still, severe burning left nearly 38,000 acres with water-repellent soils, setting the stage for potential landslides and debris flows in steep parts of Rock Creek and Lake Fork drainages, according to the analysis.

Officials reseeded thousands of burned acres last fall and plan to resume reseeding this fall after the first snows fall. They also plan to commercially log the ponderosa pines that burned near Moon Lake as part of 762-acre salvage project where these trees sustained 100% mortality.

Some 250 acres are to be logged along a mile-long stretch of the road leading to Moon Lake, while the entire project area is to be replanted.

“The purposes of the project is to capture the economic value of the fire-killed trees and then to assure that restocking will occur,” said Dustin Bambrough, a natural resources staff officer with the Ashley. “The other part is to improve public safety by reducing the hazards associated with trees toppling on roads, trails and dispersed campsites.”

Trees to be harvested are, on average, 14 inches in diameter and 65 feet tall. They must be harvested soon if this wood is to retain much value since the integrity of dead ponderosa deteriorates quickly.The project is expect to collect 1.5 million board-feet of timber.

Lightning started the fire started sometime in mid-August about a mile above Upper Stillwater Reservoir, just inside the High Uinta Wilderness Area. A trail crew discovered the flames on the morning of Aug. 21 and notified forest managers. A ground crew hiked to the spot but high winds whipped the fire into an uncontrollable inferno that afternoon. Five firefighters were lucky to escape with their lives that day, according to a Forest Service report. A helicopter pilot assigned to dropping water was able to direct the firefighters to a safe pickup site and flew them to safety.

(Courtesy photo from the U.S. Forest Service) This provided photo shows a firefighter doing night firing operations on the East Fork Fire in the high Uintas wilderness.

As the fire burned into the wilderness area, forest officials focused their efforts toward evacuating backpackers, rather than putting out the fire as it spread up steep terrain in the wilderness.

At the time, fires were raging out of control up and down the West Coast, so national firefighting resources were not readily available anyway.

“Because the fire was in wilderness, it was really hard to get to. The access is really difficult and it makes for unsafe firefighting conditions,” Groves said. “So what we tend to do is wait for it to come to an area where we can aggressively fight it and where there’s more values at risk. That’s how we prioritized how we were fighting the fire. We always prioritized private property.”

East Fork could have wound up being a modest wilderness fire but for the hurricane-force wind storm that raked northern Utah about two weeks after the fire started. Besides toppling trees and powerlines 75 miles away in Salt Lake City, the winds drove the flames into the Lake Fork drainage on Sept. 6 and 7, past Moon Lake, where it laid waste to the ponderosas, and out of the national forest.

Firefighters were able to save Moon Lake’s campground and resort area, but a half dozen structures were lost. But there was little they could do to stop a half-mile-wide wall of flames that moved out of the mountains, eventually reaching the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.

“It was just one of those fluke events,” Haynes said. “We dumped close to 500,000 gallons of water and we still couldn’t stop the fire from coming out [of the mountains]. It came down and made about a 7-mile run, followed by about a 13-mile run. It got down into that lower-elevation sagebrush.”

Capping one of Utah’s driest, warmest years on record, snows arrived so late in the Uintas that the fire was not declared officially out until Jan. 4, nearly four months after that wind storm.