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Fire zone faces a long, rugged road to recovery

Raging flood waters came close to completely washing away this section of road in Huntington Canyon.
SR 31 through Huntington Canyon is buried in debris after Wednesday evening's cloudburst.

Sun Advocate associate editor

The wall of water that roared down Huntington Canyon and almost washed away SR 31 last Wednesday was the most spectacular of the after-effects of the Seeley Fire so far. There are quieter, more insidious trends in store for the 48,000 acres of the fire zone, though.

These trends could go on for more than five years, according to the report of the panel of experts on the Burned Area Emergency Response team.

For example, erosion will happen where ground cover and forest canopy are gone. The BAER team concluded that almost 33,000 acres now have a high erosion hazard rating. What that means is that each of those high-risk acres could lose up to 6.4 tons of soil to rain and runoff. That is more than 3,500 cubic yards per square mile that could be lost.

Last Wednesday's downpour proved that point.

Emery County Sheriff's Captain Kyle Ekker flew over the terrain after the storm and reported that places in Pole Canyon have been completely stripped of topsoil and are down to bare bedrock.

SR 31 was covered in some places with refrigerator-sized boulders and undercut at other sites by the fast-moving flood water.

The report also notes that the Huntington Power Plant remains at risk. The plant generates about 900 megawatts of power and uses about 7,000 gallons per minute of Huntington Creek water.

The plant has remained operational because it is able to turn off its diversion when the creek is extremely turbid and rely on the supply in its raw water settling pond.

Irrigation and culinary water systems also could be affected by reduced water quality. Debris and ash from the affected area have been found at the Mounds Road crossing of the Price River, some 50 miles away from the burned area in Carbon County.

Another long-term hazard is an increased risk of snow avalanches in Huntington canyon. Dead trees will eventually yield to the pressure of heavy snow and topple, allowing avalanches to surge onto the highway.

Also, western Carbon and Emery counties are now susceptible to an influx of noxious weeds, according to the report. The potential dispersion of weeds comes about because the soil was disturbed by the fire-fighting efforts and there was no time to decontaminate equipment that was racing from place to place to battle the fire. Seeds may have been deposited on bare, broken soil.

The experts on the BAER team have estimated that vegetation recovery on the south-facing slopes is likely to take two to three years, while on the forested north slopes the process will take five to seven years.

Even in the low intensity burned areas, native vegetation won't be able to compete with weeds for at least one growing season.

"Lack of vegetative cover and litter can contribute to chronic erosion and perpetual hillslope instability," the report says.

One of the steps that can be taken relatively quickly is to shred dead trees and use the mulch to cover the bare soil in places such as Nuck Wood and Engineer canyons. The report notes the the mulch will less the impact of raindrops and hold some moisture for seeds and seedlings, which will help vegetative recovery.

Extensive work will also be needed on trails in the Manti-LaSal National Forest. This means work on trail drainage and repair or improvement of waterbars on existing trails.

The BAER team has requested a little more than $1.8 million in federal funds for the treatments it has recommended for the National Forest alone. Cost of suppression for the fire itself was $8.5 million.

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