Revegetation after Cascade fire paying off, officials say

Caleb Warnock DAILY HERALD

Those who visit Cascade Springs this summer will be treated to a rare, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime sight among the new shoots of aspen and Gambel Oak: ripe fields of wheat and barley.

On Sept. 23, 2003, 25-mph winds carried embers from a 1,000-acre planned burn in Cascade Springs past a fire break line, resulting in a 7,828-acre wildfire that scorched private and public land. Called the Cascade II fire, the blaze burned for seven days and cost about $2 million to contain. A National Forest Service review team report blamed the fire on internal errors at the Uinta National Forest.

Immediately after the fire was contained, Forest Service employees and volunteers spent thousands of hours and almost $800,000 to spread seed and straw mulch on the burned areas by helicopter and by hand, place straw-filled plastic net tubes along hillsides to prevent run-off, and pack straw bales into small ravines to prevent flooding and erosion.

Acres of wheat and barley, sterilized to prevent reproduction, were planted around the springs to prevent soil erosion during the wet spring months.

Now, with much of the canyon lush and green again, revegetation efforts are paying off. Wildflowers, grasses and young trees are growing among the shoots of grain. And Forest Service officials received permission this week to spend another $18,000 to clean out soil that piled up behind straw-bale dams and replace the tubes of straw, called wattles.

"We feel really good about the revegetation efforts since the fire," said Pleasant Grove district ranger Pam Gardner. "We will continue to follow it and maintain it."

Last winter, the first since the fire, was "critical" to the health of big game including deer, elk and moose, which normally live on the mountain grasses during the cold months, she said.

"There was and probably still is a short-term impact to big game feed," she said. "The fire has changed the wildlife habitat, but within the next four or five years there will be tremendous habitat and probably in the end it will be better for the elk, deer, moose, turkeys and other animals that live here."

Gambel oak habitat typically burns every 30 to 60 years, she said, but before the fire, the Cascade Springs area had not seen wildfire for a hundred years or more.

"The objective was to reintroduce fire to the ecosystem because it is an important component," she said. "Oak brush can be very flammable and we wanted to reduce some of the fire fuel hazard and improve the wildlife habitat."

The brush had grown so tall that much of the leaf foliage was out of reach to even the largest animals, she said. After the fire, the oak and aspen, which spread from their roots, are now 3 to 4 feet tall.

But even though the animal habitat may be more healthful in the long run because of the fire, some parts of the mountains will be scarred for years, she said. In the areas where the blaze burned the hottest, the soil was essentially melted, creating a crust that water cannot penetrate. Scientists call the condition hydrophobic soil. Forest Service experts estimate that 18 percent of the burned area is now hydrophobic.

"Those areas are our biggest concern," she said. "It is difficult to get revegetation in those areas."

And three weeks ago, as monsoon storms poured rain onto the area, the soil left barren by the fire saturated and gave way, creating a mudslide that covered a section of two roads and the lower Cascade Springs parking lot. More mudslides could follow this fall or in years to come.

"It will take several years to feel like we are past the critical point," she said.

The number of visitors to the areas has declined, in part because the boardwalk around the springs is closed to allow crews to replace the nearly 50-year-old cement footings beneath the boardwalk, which were beginning to crumble. The project will be completed and the boardwalk reopened to visitors just in time to view the fall colors in early to mid-September, she said.

But visitors need not wait. The road to the springs is still open and Gardner invited the public to see firsthand how the revegetation efforts have succeeded.

"I think people will be pleasantly surprised at how well it has recovered," she said. "It isn't just a moonscape."