Prescribed burn in Uintas near Kamas targets 6,000 acres to protect Provo River and the water it provides
U.S. Forest Service ranger Dano Jauregui stood on a ridgeline Wednesday overlooking his forest, watching it burn and hoping the flames took hold.
Jauregui oversees the Heber-Kamas ranger district in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and he was monitoring the progress of a prescribed burn near the Upper Provo River, the smoke rising from fires set by hand crews as a helicopter flitted back and forth, setting trees and brush alight.
The 6,000-acre target area is about 10 miles east of Kamas just north of the Provo River and Mirror Lake Highway. The burn was a part of the latest phase in a multi-year project spearheaded by the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative.
The goal of this project is to protect the Upper Provo River watershed, which provides water for more than half the state’s population, from the effects of catastrophic wildfire and to restore forest health by reducing hazardous fuels, restoring an ecological balance in the forest and reducing overall tree density.
Wildfires threaten watersheds by inundating them with runoff, including ash, soils and debris, said Tyler Thompson, the watershed program director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
For example, after the 2018 Dollar Ridge fire that burned 70,000 acres in the Ashley National Forest, managers of the nearby Starvation Reservoir who had been contemplating a $2 million piece of equipment to deal with phosphorus treatment were forced to consider a $25 million purchase to deal with the sedimentation resulting from the blaze, Jauregui said.
It was the third consecutive year crews had attempted this burn in the Uintas; though they were thwarted by wet conditions in years past, they had been able to lay in miles of firebreaks and groundwork to prepare for it. The plans had been in the works for years longer.
On Wednesday, hand crews worked from the southern end of the area, using drip cans filled with a kerosene/diesel mixture to set underbrush alight. A helicopter crew was working from the north down toward the fire line using a heli-torch that fired a gel the safety officer described as akin to napalm. A firing boss was positioned on another nearby ridgeline to guide the helicopter crew.
Paul Gauchay, the forest’s safety manager, said in the 35 years he’s been involved in forest management, the biggest improvements he’s seen in prescribed burns are the tactics, planning and analysis used by the administrators.
“Used to be, people who are in charge of the range (would) program fire on the side,” Gauchay recalled. “(Now), the burn bosses go to classes, get training — they’re certified.”
He’s been at it awhile but said he still gets excited the day of the burn. After the morning briefing from burn boss Riley Bergseng, who is a lead fuels technician with the forest service, Gauchay stepped up to remind the 60 or so assembled firefighters of the burn’s importance and not to take shortcuts.
Crews were told about how to safely evacuate, the project’s goals, the infrastructure to protect, detailed weather information and what to do if things went sideways.
Forest Service staff passed around boxes filled with donuts and fritters the size of softballs.
Later, Gauchay described the importance of the burn, both to the region and the forest itself.
“If we get a large fire, it would be easy to go down-canyon toward Kamas,” he said.
This prescribed burn, by lowering the risk for a catastrophic wildfire, also helps to protect homes and community infrastructure, he added.
Pointing to hillsides where tall green conifers outnumbered the neighboring shorter, bright-green aspens and other species, he said conifers tend to crowd out their neighbors and dominate a space. A healthy forest is one with species and age diversity, Gauchay said, and this fire would help restore that.
Plus, aspens act as natural firebreaks, Jauregui said, and the conifers were squeezing them out.
Prescribed burns lead to forest health, Jauregui said, by clearing downed trees and shorter underbrush that could supercharge a fire, while still enabling stronger, medium-sized fires to flourish.
Tree age diversity is something the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest has lacked, he said, due to years of fire suppression techniques that stymied natural fire patterns.
The mountain pine beetle, for example, mainly attacks older trees, Salt Lake district ranger Rebecca Hotze said. Because fires haven’t wiped out portions of intervening generations and many of the trees in the forest are roughly the same age, the beetles have ample targets.
“We’d gotten so good at suppressing small fires, we got rid of medium fires. So instead of a 3,000- or 5,000-acre fire, fires go 100,000-acres,” Jauregui said. “They’re burning under unnatural conditions.”
Prescribed burns and the natural fires they catalyze often allow for a more diverse ecosystem than the giant firestorms that obliterate everything in their path.
“People often think fires take out 100 percent (of vegetation),” Jauregui said. “They do not.”
The prescribed burn had specific goals like what percentage of vegetation should be killed in certain areas, what the area should look like in specific time increments after the burn, which types of trees to target and the kind of mosaic of burn scarring was desirable. Viewed from the air after the fire, the forest should look something like a checkerboard, with areas of higher mortality next to areas left relatively unscathed, Jauregui said.
One of the goals of the burn was to torch 20-80 percent of the standing dead trees in the area left behind by the beetle infestation. Though it’s outside the burn area, many such trees line the Mirror Lake Highway on the way to Bald Mountain Pass, where Hotze and Jauregui looked out over the site of last year’s Murdock Fire.
“This is scary to me,” Jauregui said. “This could go high intensity, and we don’t manage in the (nearby) Wilderness Area.”
He hoped improved fire strategies in his area would allow a more natural fire cycle to take hold.
Later in the afternoon, standing on the ridge monitoring the prescribed fire’s progress, thousands of acres spread out before him, Jauregui was hoping the fire would leave his forest healthier than it was when the day started.
The fire hadn’t burned as intensely as he had hoped, so the helicopter crew went back to work the next day. He reported Thursday night the mission met its objective of treating 40 percent of the vegetation in the area and had achieved a great mosaic of burn outcomes. He estimated 1,700 to 2,000 acres had been touched by fire and called the operation a success.
With snow expected this weekend, it was likely the last chance for a burn this year. The work will continue, though, as the state and federal Shared Stewardship program has committed funding for the fourth phase of the project next year.
“It’s an issue that’s been going on for a long time,” Jauregui said after a meeting with stakeholders in August. “It’s something that we’re starting to get a lot more traction in, information out there, getting on the same page as to what needs to be done. The Forest Service, state, county, district — we’re finally on the same page.”
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