CEDAR CITY – Although the danger of the summer’s Brian Head Fire has passed, the blackened and ashy landscape left in the fire’s wake now poses another risk.
“We are all very concerned about the watersheds. We can almost predict flooding in August as the monsoon season moves in, which means we’re likely going to have some problems,” Brian Cottam, director for Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said. “There’s no sugarcoating it. We are going to be dealing with issues resulting from the Brian Head Fire for years to come.”
Flames from the wildland fire stripped more than 70,000 acres of land leaving the mountainous terrain barren of vegetation that would normally prevent soil erosion and slow the runoff from flash floods threatening critical watersheds. Moreover, intense heat from a fire forms a layer of soil that acts as a water repellent, also increasing the chance of channel runoff.
Several local communities began to realize their watersheds may be at risk last week after excessive rainfall over the Brian Head Fire burn scar resulted in multiple debris flows slumping into streams, rivers and reservoirs. Debris flows can consist of rock, mud, vegetation and other loose material.
Officials are closely watching the Sevier River Watershed in central Utah that has major water bodies located in the fire burn scar including Clear Creek, Mammoth Creek and Panguitch Reservoir. The Sevier River delivers water to various communities in Garfield, Kane, Piute and Iron counties and is used for irrigation, recreation, wildlife and culinary water.
Additionally, concerns have been raised about several flows moving toward Panguitch Lake, Red Creek and Yankee Meadow Reservoir – all watersheds vital to the surrounding communities of Parowan, Panguitch and Paragonah. These watersheds primarily provide water for irrigation, recreation and wildlife.
In Parowan, residents began to deal with the devastating effects of the runoff last Tuesday when sprinkler systems throughout the community became clogged from the flash floods pushing debris into the city’s irrigation system.
“I am very concerned,” Parowan Mayor Don Landes said. “Parowan is in jeopardy of losing part of our watershed for three years because of all the crud that’s in our creek right now. It’s devastating. This whole thing was so unnecessary.”
The debris flows draining into the reservoirs can create several environmental issues such as algal blooms that can be toxic to the wildlife. The fish in the reservoirs can also die from a lack of oxygen if the water fills up with too much ash and silt, Richard Hepworth, aquatics manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources, said.
In Yankee Meadow and Red Creek reservoirs, the danger is that the debris may absorb the water leaving nothing but sludge.
“There is a potential for these reservoirs to completely fill up with silt and ash and then it’s a matter of digging our way out,” Hepworth said. “We’ll have to go in and literally clean out all of that debris.”
To clean out the debris, reservoirs may have to be closed for a time, which would affect agriculture, recreation and wildlife.
Hepworth is not as concerned about this same issue with Panguitch Lake, arguing that the body of water is too big for the debris to absorb it. However, he is concerned about the long-term effects of the runoff into the Panguitch Reservoir and the potential for “problems down the road.”
But with Panguitch Lake considered one of Southern Utah’s most popular and productive fisheries, the local economy is largely dependent on the basin for generating tourism revenue.
“If that watershed is destroyed because of this fire not, only do we stand to lose one of the top fisheries in the U.S. that took years to build, but it will financially devastate Garfield County,” state Rep. Mike Noel said. “Agriculture in Garfield County is also dependent on that reservoir along with the wildlife in the area. All of it will be affected if that watershed is damaged.”
Multiple government agencies are currently working together to mitigate the damage to the watersheds and prevent any further issues.
The U.S. Forest Service has put together a Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER, team whose job it is to evaluate potential threats associated with post-fire conditions. Their primary focus is to protect public safety, life and property.
BAER teams consist of scientists and specialists including hydrologists, geologists, engineers, botanists, wildlife and fisheries biologists, archeologists and geographic information specialists from federal and state agencies.
Beginning with the development of a burn severity map, the team will make recommendations to determine emergency stabilization measures and actions. They will also create a long-term treatment plan for the burn area.
This is the first step in assessing potential watershed impacts from the wildfire, with the end goal being to determine the areas most vulnerable to the effects of rain and runoff. For the team, this process needs to happen quickly before the imminent monsoonal thunderstorms bring more rain and flooding.
“The monsoon season is going to bring more problems so it’s imperative we are prepared,” Noel said. “I know they have already begun some rehabilitation measures in anticipation of the monsoon season. They are also gearing up to get as much planted as they can before fall comes so this next spring we’ll begin to see seed growth.”
The team evaluates areas with no vegetation to determine effective mitigation efforts. These measures may include clearing debris from stream channels to enhance water flow capabilities and help stabilize soils by seeding ground covers. Road culverts are also being assessed to assure they are clear and can accommodate increased flows.
A monitoring process will be developed to regulate the success of the various projects.
The team will also be submitting funding requests to implement the projects contributing to fire stabilization. The U.S. Forest Service has already provided $10 million for rehabilitation measures, Noel said.
While the total cost of rehabilitation measures is likely to far exceed the $40 million price tag attached to suppression efforts, the expenses for doing so are rarely ever followed by government agencies.”
“Mitigation costs are seldom tracked. We spend what we need to in order to do the job and those costs are generally wrapped into the overall budget,” Cottam said. “But the truth is, the post-suppression costs are always many, many, many more times higher than the fire suppression costs but nobody ever tracks them. I wish they would because the rehabilitation always costs more.”
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