Federal emergency response team begins intensive damage survey
Days before human dwellers of Clear Creek were allowed to return last Friday, deer and elk which had fled the Seeley Fire were cautiously moving back to their habitat. The forest is still home to them.
While much is blackened, there is still green to be found and the animals know where to find it.
As nature takes its course over the next few years, it is going to be a better place than it was before the fire. That's the assessment of Bill Bates, regional manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources, and Nicole Nielson, an oil and gas biologist with DWR.
According to them, the fire has cleared away a patchwork of old-growth forest, including the desiccated beetle-killed conifers. The scorched earth is not a pretty sight, but with the evergreen canopy removed, it is now open to sunlight. New growth will take advantage of that sunlight and the water and nutrients.
Bates and Nielson made those comments during a tour of habitat improvement projects atop the Tavaputs Plateau last week. One stop on the tour was the Cold Spring Wildlife Management Area. It was the site of a prescribed burn two years ago. The Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands torched 130 acres of the WMA and an equal amount on adjacent Hunt Oil property to remove intrusive subalpine fir.
Today, aspen are propagating in the burned area. The tender shoots at the tops of the two-foot-tall trees show signs of being nibbled on by deer and elk. Flowering plants, another delicacy for the antlered animals, are also taking hold. With some human help with erosion control and reseeding, this rejuvenation could take place in areas now charred by the wild fire.
At the Seeley Fire aftermath, hints of an explosion of plant life can be seen just off of the highway in Huntington Canyon. Grass is growing two to three inches high directly atop bare burned ground.
"If you come back in a couple of months, this whole hillside will be covered in green," said Fire Prevention Officer Brandon Jensen, who works the northern half of the Manti-LaSal National Forest. "The plants key in immediately to the nutrients produced by the fire."
Although Jensen was clear that a full turn-around cycle for the burned areas will take some time, evidence within the canyon shows that many animal species never left. Fresh deer tracks wandering through the ash along with a lone doe grazing near a winding spring show that nature is much more accustomed to fire than are their human neighbors.
Along with much of the canyon's wildlife, Stuart Guard Station also got a reprieve from blaze's grasp, if only by the narrowest of margins.
"You can see the fire was burning just to the north of the structure," Jensen noted.
The renovated 1930s era Ranger residence, turned visitor's center, is a local treasure and was saved even as the fire closed in around those guarding it. The crew dug hand lines all around the structures and burned out fuel sources close to the station.
The immediate devastation caused by a fire such as Seeley is not the only issue forest officials such as Jensen will have to contend with in the coming days. Flash flooding is now even more of an issue in the canyon because so many of the trees which would hold back water and debris were burned.
Winding through the canyon, one area after another shows the devastation which rolling water can cause, a fact that drew many comments from both Jensen and his partner that day, Rosann Fillmore.
Fillmore, who is a public information officer with the Forest Service, was seeing the fire's damage for the first time, also commented on the subsequent flooding.
"There will be quite of bit of erosion because of the issues we will now face with flooding but it is all part of the life cycle of the forest," she said.
On Friday, a Burn Area Emergency Response team entered the area to begin an intense survey. This is an interagency team of experts in disciplines such as hydrology and soil science who will be spending 12 hours or more per day in the forest to complete their study and recommendations as quickly as possible. They have a deadline of seven days from the time the fire is declared 100 percent contained. It will be up to them to come up with a list of remediation efforts that will mitigate the post-fire effects of erosion and watershed degradation.
Fillmore said the BAER team concentrates on federal lands in its assessment but will share information with state agencies. The Natural Resources Conservation Service assists private landowners.
As of Monday afternoon, the Seeley Fire was 97 percent contained. Cost of fire fighting was $8.3 million and still counting.