Mending Milford: Ravaged by wildfire 1 year ago, area begins to recover

Published: Sunday, July 13 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Wheat grass grows next to vegetation burned in the Milford Flat fire. About 160,000 acres of BLM land have been reseeded and 40,000 acres of state and private land are being rehabilitated.

Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News

COVE FORT — The Bureau of Land Management's Harvey Gates can look out over a field near I-15 and see the future, how an area burned by the record-breaking Milford Flat fire last year will rebound next to a field of flowing tall grasses — all part of a reseeding effort after a wildfire here 11 years ago.

Rancher Mike Yardley views similar areas and can see a need, his own, unmet because federal range managers like Gates aren't letting his cattle anywhere near sensitive spots that are still being rehabilitated after the 2007 wildfires that ravaged this area.

"In the long run we'll be better off," Yardley admitted about waiting to graze in some spots.

Yardley and Gates are complimentary of each other, but they don't quite see eye to eye as massive rehabilitation and monitoring efforts continue here after last year's largest single wildfire in Utah history.

Marleen Hodges, who with her husband runs the Chevron station at the Cove Fort exit near the interstate, only has to look out a window at the burned hulks of trees about 50 yards from her gas pumps to be reminded of a "tornado" of fire that swept over her business one year ago.

"It was terrifying," Hodges said. The evacuation on a Friday night was so sudden that she yelled to a customer trying to fill up, "Hang it up and go!"

The lightning-sparked fire had started in early July on the west side of the Mineral Mountains. It spread up and over the ridge east, jumped the highway, somehow spared Hodges' gas station and then moved north. About July 16, 2007, the fire was declared 100 percent contained, after it had burned through 363,046 acres in Millard and Beaver counties.

Two people died in a smoke-related accident on I-15. About $4 million was spent on fighting the raging blaze.

Inferno's aftermath

More than 270,000 acres that burned belong to the federal Bureau of Land Management. About 160,000 acres of BLM land have been reseeded as of last April and another 40,000 acres of state and private land are also being rehabilitated by reseeding efforts.

All total, the BLM has spent about $22 million on reviving land so precious to so many, like Yardley and Lisa Reid, who is raising a family in Fillmore.

Reid sees on flat surfaces inside her house evidence of what the Milford Flat fire left behind.

"You should see our homes," said Reid, a spokeswoman for the BLM. "Spring and summer have been terrible — the amount of dust that's been in the air. You wouldn't believe the accumulation of dust."

Worse, Reid said all of the dust blowing in the air has led to breathing problems for children in the neighborhood where she lives.

The exposed soil not yet held in place by regrowth in the Milford Flat area is a fine, chalky, light-brown dirt that, when the wind gets going, can quickly create a dust-bowl atmosphere. Last fall the Utah Highway Patrol closed sections of I-15 through Millard and Beaver counties because of blowing dust.

Utah Division of Air Quality director Cheryl Heying said some of that dust actually made its way north this past spring during strong wind storms.

"The soil just was not being held down by all of the vegetation and it was blowing up into the Wasatch Front, especially Utah County," Heying said.

Heying, Reid and Yardley are hopeful people like Gates, with a lot of help from Mother Nature, will make the good grasses grow again.

The enemy here is still cheatgrass and Scotch thistle.

Cheatgrass spreads easily but dries out quickly when the weather turns hot and dry. Adult Scotch thistle gets huge and hungry for water, it isn't edible to livestock or wildlife and it chokes out more favorable grazing grasses. Also, a lot of people believe there's too much sage, pinyon and juniper in some areas of Utah, particularly in western parts.

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