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Statewide reseeding efforts kept wildfires from doing more damage, officials say

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 4:29 p.m. MDT

Utah's wildfire season has finally erupted with a vengeance. But some state officials believe it might have kicked into high gear much earlier and with many more acres burned if it hadn't been for an aggressive statewide reseeding effort. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News) Utah's wildfire season has finally erupted with a vengeance. But some state officials believe it might have kicked into high gear much earlier and with many more acres burned if it hadn't been for an aggressive statewide reseeding effort. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News)

MINERSVILLE, Beaver County — Utah's wildfire season has finally erupted with a vengeance. But some state officials believe it might have kicked into high gear much earlier and with many more acres burned if it hadn't been for an aggressive statewide reseeding effort.

"Our indices were telling us we had the conditions to have much more of a fire season," said Paul Briggs of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "Without these treatments in place, in my mind, there's no doubt that we'd have had a much larger fire season in southwestern Utah."

In the past decade-plus, a multiagency partnership has revegetated about a million acres in Utah. About 25 percent of that was in areas ravaged by fire. The other 75 percent of the revegetation has been done proactively in unburned areas where fire is a threat.

Officials point to a vivid example in Iron County. Just before the Fourth of July, lightning triggered a blaze that moved rapidly through an area dominated by pinyon and juniper trees, as well as cheatgrass.

When the blaze burned toward an area that was reseeded in 2002, flames were flying 80 feet high. But as it hit the boundary of the revegetated zone, the flame height dropped to only a couple of feet. Firefighters stopped the fire right at the 2002 boundary.

Briggs said the 5,000-acre fire could easily have gone to 50,000 acres if the reseeding had not been done 11 years ago.

"We substitute a much more desirable perennial vegetation that stays green throughout the growing season," he said. "Obviously it doesn't re-burn every few years like cheatgrass."

Agency officials say they have frequently observed lightning strikes in the treated areas that turn out to be no big deal.

"They call it single-tree fires," said Gary Bezzant of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "Quite often there will be a lightning strike and it just didn't go anywhere."

The multiagency reeseeding effort costs taxpayers about $10 million a year, but state officials involved say it's worth every penny.

"Fire suppression costs are way more expensive than restoration costs," Bezzant said.

Email: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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