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

Published: Sunday, July 13 2008 12:08 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) 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.
Vegetation is beginning to return after the Milford Flat fire burned 363,046 acres in Millard and Beaver counties. The BLM has spent about $22 million on reviving the land. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News) Vegetation is beginning to return after the Milford Flat fire burned 363,046 acres in Millard and Beaver counties. The BLM has spent about $22 million on reviving the land. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News)
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.
Vegetation is beginning to return after the Milford Flat fire burned 363,046 acres in Millard and Beaver counties. The BLM has spent about $22 million on reviving the land. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News) Vegetation is beginning to return after the Milford Flat fire burned 363,046 acres in Millard and Beaver counties. The BLM has spent about $22 million on reviving the land. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News)
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."
Harvey Gates, natural resource specialist for the BLM, surveys areas Tuesday that have been reseeded since the Milford Flat fire a year ago. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News) Harvey Gates, natural resource specialist for the BLM, surveys areas Tuesday that have been reseeded since the Milford Flat fire a year ago. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News)
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.
Firefighters work their way north in the southbound lanes of I-15 on July 7, 2007, as they try to control the fire. The fire was declared 100 percent contained on July 16, 2007. About $4 million was spent to fight the blaze. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Firefighters work their way north in the southbound lanes of I-15 on July 7, 2007, as they try to control the fire. The fire was declared 100 percent contained on July 16, 2007. About $4 million was spent to fight the blaze. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)
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.
Combined, the dry cheat grass, sage, pinyon and juniper can be a recipe for wildfire disasters, like the Milford Flat fire.
Yardley thinks the BLM is about 20 or 30 years behind in thinning areas dominated by sage, pinyon and juniper. He said the BLM should have acted before Milford Flat. "We wouldn't have the problems we're having today," he said. "Why not do it before the fire?"
As traffic moves along I-15 a heavy tanker drops retardant on the Milford Flat fire burning near Cove Fort July 8, 2007. The blaze was sparked by lightning. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) As traffic moves along I-15 a heavy tanker drops retardant on the Milford Flat fire burning near Cove Fort July 8, 2007. The blaze was sparked by lightning. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)
Yardley has thinned his herd down by 100 head of cattle to about 300, which means he won't have to buy as much feed or try to graze them on land that's scarce these days. "I don't know how many thousands of acres," is his answer when asked how much grazing land he's lost for right now.
"We're still in business," said Yardley, who raised five children on a rancher's income and now has one son in the business with him. "We'll survive."
Looking ahead
One man who will help Yardley survive is Gates.
In a pair of cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, Gates recently described what has happened after the Milford Flat fire, walking through an area with green shoots that are about shin high.
"It looks really good," he said, reaching down to touch and identify the grasses, some of which were planted and others that are coming back on their own. "I think it's doing very well. It's really responding."
Harvey Gates holds a piece of wheat grass Tuesday that has grown in the area of the Milford Flat fire. More than 270,000 acres that burned belong to the BLM. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News) Harvey Gates holds a piece of wheat grass Tuesday that has grown in the area of the Milford Flat fire. More than 270,000 acres that burned belong to the BLM. (Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News)
The hope is that wildlife won't over-forage the area and that the rains and winter will be kind to the areas of young growth. By late 2010, Gates thinks the reseeded tracts burned by Milford Flat will be ready for ranchers who have grazing allotments in those areas. Until then, the BLM is considering putting up miles and miles of electric fences to keep livestock out of those areas but still offer access to adjacent, more abundant fields of older growth.
In the meantime the BLM, with a more "limited" budget these days, will continue annual monitoring of the Milford Flat aftermath.
Gates said if another huge wildfire were to occur with similar impacts, the federal funds won't be there to rehabilitate areas on the same level as Milford Flat. "They're going to gut the program," Gates said, referencing Congress' reducing the BLM's budget for rehabilitating burned areas.
There will be more fires, some big ones, Gates predicted, but the number of large wildfires in Utah should diminish once the fuel that has built up over the past 150 years has been burned away.
In the meantime, for the few years he has left with the BLM as a range manager before retiring, Gates will continue trying to balance "value" systems that differ from one person or group to the next, some of whom don't want the BLM to do anything and let nature take its course after wildfires.
When he's no longer juggling value systems for a living, in a very visible way Gates will have left his lasting stamp on reborn portions of Utah where fires once left their mark.
"I'll miss it when I retire," said Gates, looking out over the grasses planted after the 1997 and 2007 fires. "I'll miss doing this."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com

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