BLM crews work to reduce fire danger near Uintah County homes

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 6:24 p.m. MDT

One by one, the pinyon juniper trees growing on federally managed lands in Dry Fork Canyon are coming down. Not all of them. Just large swaths here and there to create fire breaks.

Nick Short

Enlarge photo»

DRY FORK CANYON, Uintah County — One by one, the pinyon juniper trees growing on federally managed lands are coming down.

Not all of them. Just large swaths here and there.

"We're trying to put that vegetation on the ground so that when there's a fire, we can actually work with it," said Mike Bertagnolli, a fire and fuels technician with the Bureau of Land Management's field office in Vernal.

Typically, wildfires produce flame lengths roughly three times the size of the vegetation that is burning, Bertagnolli said. By removing the taller pinyon junipers — which also crowd out grasses and forbs that serve as primary food sources for deer and elk — "the flame lengths will be much shorter than if the tree had been standing," he said.

The work is part of a multiyear project the BLM has undertaken in Uintah County with help from private contractors and state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources.

"This project, all-encompassing, is going to be 2,500 acres," Bertagnolli said. "So we're taking some pretty big chunks of trees out."

The work is taking place on BLM-administered lands northwest of Vernal, including parts of Dry Fork Canyon, where public lands border a number of private homes.

"We like living up here," said Dry Fork resident Vicky Reed. "It's quiet."

Reed and her husband were living full time in the canyon in 2005 when a lightning-sparked wildfire came dangerously close to their home.

"We were gone, and the neighbors came over and moved all of our important stuff out," said Reed, who welcomes the BLM project near her property and the added protection it offers.

She just wishes the slash piles crews left behind after prior treatments had been cleaned up.

"They haven't taken care of them," Reed said. "They're still just piled there and … if lightning stuck, it would be gone in a minute."

The BLM is aware of Reed's concern but noted there is more work planned for the area.

The slash piles immediately above the Reeds' home are the result of work that is still underway, Bertagnolli said. The piles are slated to be burned during the winter or the coming spring, he said.

Another area nearby, which was treated in the past, was sprayed with herbicide on Wednesday. The plan calls for reseeding with drought-resistant grasses in a year or two, Bertagnolli said.

"We can fight fires a lot better in grass than we can in juniper in a wind-driven fire," he said. "It puts us in a position as firefighters to be able to do what we can to protect people's homes."

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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