NEOLA — Renewed beauty is peeking out of the burnt snags of wood and thousands of acres left barren by the Neola North wildfire. The inferno roared over the south slope of the Uintas, claiming three lives and homes on June 29.
Three months after the fire, aspen are sprouting and the lavender fireweed has made an appearance. By next year thousands of aspen stems will be spread almost like a carpet in many of the stands that burned, said Ashley National Forest ecologist Allen Huber.
"Aspen relies on disturbance to remain vigorous and healthy," he said, noting that fire is very advantageous for most plant communities. "Shortly following a fire you will have a vigorous regrowth of native or introduced grasses and forbs that were there prior to the fire."
But the loss of the pinon and juniper belt has left wide gaps where nothing but blackened soil remains on land within the boundaries of the Ashley National Forest and the Uintah/Ouray Reservation.
By this spring public land managers hope new perennials and wide-leafed plants will also be popping up — the result of emergency aerial reseeding of 5,343 acres taking place this month on land devastated by the Neola North fire.
"When pinon-juniper grows and matures it limits the amount of grass and shrubs underneath. When it burns there are no residuals to grow back after fire," said Earl Kerns, ecosystem group leader for the Ashley National Forest.
With nothing to hold soil in place on thousands of acres covered by pinion and juniper prior to the fire, fall rains have already caused serious flooding in the Farm Creek area.
Emergency funding from the federal government for reseeding in areas damaged by summer fires is being allocated throughout the nation. In the Uintah Basin the Ashley National Forest will receive $119,296 and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is in line to receive $213,820 for reseeding Ute Tribe lands, said Kerns.
"Several thousand acres will be reseeded; the majority will be on tribal lands," said Huber. "Federal emergency funds are designed to restore watersheds that have been burned with fire." Burned areas compete for these funds.
Fall is the optimum time of the year to reseed, with germination expected next spring.
Ideally the seeds will soon be covered with snow and harden in order to develop full seed heads by spring.
Without reseeding, the chance that "cheatgrass" will grow, turning the blackened acres into another potential fire hazard, is almost inevitable, said Huber.
When cheatgrass is allowed to establish and spread it acts as a flash fuel. Not only that, said Huber, but the widespread encroachment of cheatgrass changes the entire dynamics of fire on wildlands.
"If you get cheatgrass established, instead of a plant community burning every 100 years, they burn every five to 10 years," he said.
Cheatgrass is a detriment in others ways as well, Huber noted. It provides a poor ground cover in terms of soil erosion and has only minimal forage value for wildlife and livestock in the early spring. When it goes to seed it is an irritant for animals who get it in their mouths.