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Researchers return to assess areas burned by Pole Creek, Bald Mountain fires

PAYSON — Standing at a high peak between Bald Mountain and Nebo Creek nearly a year after the area was once engulfed by two wildfires, Paul B. Gauchay called the fire's movement "mosaic."

Officials from Utah's Watershed Restoration Initiative, Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Division of Wildlife, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service attended a Central Region Summer Field Tour to discuss both the short- and long-term effects of the fires, along with their current rehabilitation efforts.

Last September, two separate wildfires in south Utah County — the Pole Creek Fire and the Bald Mountain Fire — combined, burning more than 120,000 acres and forced evacuations for nearly 6,000 people in the area.

Ashley Longmore looks over new growth as officials with the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Division of Wildlife and the Forest Service tour areas affected by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires near Mount
Ashley Longmore looks over new growth as officials with the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Division of Wildlife and the Forest Service tour areas affected by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires near Mount Nebo on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Much of the burned terrain was reseeded last fall.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Gauchay, acting district ranger at the Spanish Fork Ranger District, said mosaic fires, common throughout the Intermountain West, don't consume all of the dry vegetation due to terrain changes and wind shifts.

The "spotty" movement of the fires has helped the land affected retain its natural vegetation.

"Mosaics are very good for the landscape," he said. "It keeps some of the species that can naturally help with the reseeding."

Soon after the fire was fully contained in October 2018, efforts began to reseed the scorched areas with a native seed mix, according to Gauchay.

As of November 2018, about 34,636 acres of the more than 120,000 acres burned, have been reseeded.

Because the fires moved quickly, Gauchay said, they didn't do a lot of damage to the ground's root systems. Most damage observed occurred in narrow, steep canyons.

"We're really pleased with the vegetation recovery that we've seen so far," he said.

While examining the vegetation in Payson Canyon, Robby Edgel, Department of Natural Resources habitat restoration biologist, found signs that the forest's oak trees, forbs and grass are coming back.

Trees that were burned in the Pole Creek Fire and Bald Mountain fires near Mount Nebo are pictured on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Much of the burned terrain was reseeded last fall.
Trees that were burned in the Pole Creek Fire and Bald Mountain fires near Mount Nebo are pictured on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Much of the burned terrain was reseeded last fall.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"Fire is a natural process. It's important to help the ecosystem rejuvenate," he said. "We're just seeing the natural cycle of young vegetation coming back."

Edgel, standing in the middle of a forest of charred oaks, said the area was responding well to the native seed mix dropped by helicopters and airplanes last year.

He expects even better outcomes and growth in the following years.

Gauchay predicts there could be future wildfires this season.

While the rain-heavy season caused vegetation to grow plentifully, it can dry out in the coming months and turn into a material that can be easily ignited. And that dry vegetation can later become fuel for wildfires, he warned.

Local watersheds like the Nebo Creek and the Diamond Fork River have suffered greatly as a result of the fires, according to Chris Crockett, regional aquatic program manager of the Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife Resources.

Crockett said ash and sediment from the fires caused immediately killed fish in the watersheds.

"That we know of, we have fully lost fishery communities in about seven to eight different (water) systems," he said, adding that these systems will be impacted for the next several years.

New vegetation in an area affected by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires near Mount Nebo is pictured on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Much of the burned terrain was reseeded last fall.
New vegetation in an area affected by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires near Mount Nebo is pictured on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Much of the burned terrain was reseeded last fall.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

His team has partnered with BYU researchers to understand how ash and sediment are affecting the water chemistry of Utah County's watersheds, a phenomenon that's not fully understood.

"The watersheds and streams are going to take a lot longer to recover," he said. "We just don't want people to get complacent and think everything is fixed. It's going to take quite a few more years for the fisheries to recover."

Unlike aquatic species, land animals are more likely to survive wildfires.

Tyler Thompson, Department of Natural Resources Watershed Program Director said wildlife don’t die in big numbers during wildfires.

“There’s a big misconception that wildlife die in huge numbers in these fires,” he said.

Edgel said that due to a migration initiative, an effort to collar and track wildlife like elk, deer, bears and cougars in the area, they can observe where animals traveled before, during and after the fires.

He said animals will travel to safety away from the fires, but return to their habitat once the fire has been put out.

Gauchay said the fires affected nearly 96 miles of National Forest trails. About 60% of the trails affected by the fires have been reopened, and he anticipates the rest of the trails will reopen by October. Blackhawk Campground will remain closed for the rest of the year.

He said trail restoration includes replacing and fixing burnt bridges and retaining walls.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," he said, adding that the public can contact the Spanish Fork Ranger District to volunteer.

"We'd so much appreciate the public wanting to come and help us with our fire recovery."