Mudslide worries

After surveying the hillsides involved in the Uintah fire, officials are hopeful the chance of mudslides didn't increase with the loss of vegetation.

OGDEN — Long before the Uintah fire was out, or even partially contained, Lance Peterson was already worrying about the water to come.

Peterson, director of Weber County Emergency Management, says he called state officials back on Sept. 5 — the day the fire started — to set up a post-fire assessment. Wildfires can pose a particular problem on hillsides, where the fire can kill the roots of the vegetation that holds the soil in place. So one potential problem after a fire is that mudslides and debris flows can occur when the hillside gets saturated with moisture.

On Sept. 13, representatives from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service, the Utah Geological Survey, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources met to tour the burn area on the side of the hill above Uintah Highlands and assess possible future problems caused by the fire.

“I called for this on the day of the fire,” Peterson said. “I wanted to get ahead of it. I was thinking they could come up and assess it, and tell us if we have a big problem or not.”

Thus far, the experts are cautiously optimistic about the odds of avoiding a mudslide in the area.

“We spent Wednesday afternoon walking all over that place, looking at the soil and ashes,” Peterson said. “And they said, ‘You know, you look pretty good.’”

Because the fire burned through the area so fast, Peterson says it didn’t burn hot enough to “crystalize and destroy the root layer” of the vegetation on the hillside. As a result, officials don’t believe the stability of the site was greatly affected.

That’s not to say problems couldn’t still occur, according to Peterson.

“Now, on any hillside there’s always a concern about mudslides, so we need to keep an eye out,” he cautioned. “But the experts said, ‘I think we might be OK.’”

One good sign, according to Peterson, is that they’ve seen no problems despite the rains of recent days.

“Last Friday, according to the radar, we had about an inch of rain in about three hours,” he said. “It was a really good soak, and there weren’t any problems. I didn’t see ash or debris flows — nothing attributable to the burn. I think we dodged a bullet.”

In mid-October, DWR plans to reseed the burned area above the residential areas and surrounding the block letter “U” on the hillside.

Scott Walker, habitat program manager for DWR’s Northern Region, said his division does a lot of habitat restoration following fires. And ordinarily, they reseed an area using drills — where seeds are inserted directly into the ground.

But because of the steep slopes involved, Walker says DWR will drop the seed from broadcast spreaders beneath helicopters. They’ll spread the seed at about 15 to 18 pounds per acre.

“People get dismayed, because it’s not going to help right now,” he said of the reseeding project. “But we put seed on now, and by next spring they’ll start growing.”

DWR won’t be using many native species in restoring the hillside. Rather, Walker says they’ll use non-native “heavy-sod-forming rhizomatous plants,” including wheat grasses and some forbs. Among the plants used in the burn area will be alfalfa, flax and yarrow.

The choice of whether to use native or non-native species depends on the goal, Walker says.

“If your goal is to create plant diversity and make good wildlife habitat, then we tend to stay away from introduced species,” he said. “But if your goal is to stabilize soils and compete with annual grasses that are not desirable, then we tend to use introduced species.”

Residents of the area affected by the fire have been invited to attend a town hall meeting on Monday night, according to Peterson. Two experts from Utah State University’s Extension Service will talk about what residents should and should not plant in the aftermath of the fire. Representatives from the Weber Fire District will also be on hand to answer questions about fuel reduction and creating defensible spaces from fire.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!