The U.S. Forest Service executed prescribed burns on Monroe Mountain, June 19 and 20.
“There are good fires and there are bad fires,” said Jason Kling, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. “We need a lot more good fires. These prescribed fires were good.”
The mountain is in the Richfield Ranger District of Fishlake National Forest, and encompasses approximately 12,000 acres of private lands and 175,000 acres of public lands.
The project is a collaboration among interested parties, groups and organizations, along with federal, state and local officials, to restore aspen ecosystems on the Monroe Mountain.
“Midsummer fires, when temperatures are in the 90s, humidities are in single digits and fuels are extremely dry is a recipe for bad fire that is also dangerous for the public and firefighters,” Kling said. “Temperatures were in the 60s, humidities in the 20s, and with recent snow melt, fuels were on the wet side. This allowed for good fire.”
There was still some risk, but significantly lower than if a fire had been allowed to spark up during the hottest portion of the summer, according to Kling.
“I’m a supporter of active management verses passive management,” Kling said. “We need to accept smoke from good fires in order to avoid dangerous and costly wildfires. The mountains are going to burn regardless, so let’s be proactive and apply prescribed fires in the right locations, at the right time, with the right people and the right plan.”
The Forest Service conducted hand ignited prescribed fire treatments on 222 acres of isolated pockets of mixed conifer during the weeks leading up to the large burns to create a safety buffer.
Approximately 1,900 acres near Rock Springs, Big Table and Manning Creek were burned June 19. Another 2,000 acres was burned the following day in effort to reduce mixed conifer and dead-and-down fuels. The goal is to generate aspen growth as part of the Monroe Mountain Aspen Ecosystem Restoration Project, which launched in 2016 and was projected to take up to 10 years.
“Aspen, wildlife, range and much more will benefit from these prescribed fires,” Kling said. To provide for firefighter safety and to prevent injury to the public during the fire operations, the area was closed during the burns.
“The purpose of the prescribed burns is to help restore aspen ecosystems by reintroducing fire to the aspen ecosystems to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations thus reducing the risk to life, property and natural resources, while promoting aspen regeneration,” said Jill Ivie, range technician for fire prevention and mitigation. Ivie said the prescribed fire treatments targeted spruce/mixed conifer and seral aspen with mosaic burn patterns.
“In conjunction with the prescribed fires, research scientists associated with the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) were onsite,” Ivie said. She said the scientists used a variety of instruments and ground measurements, including pre- and post-fire fuels inventories, ground and aerial-based Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), infrared sensors, heat measuring instruments, weather balloons and smoke-sampling packages mounted on unmanned aerial devices or drones to measure fuel loading, consumption, fire behavior, heat release, plume dynamics, atmospheric profiles, smoke emissions and fire effects.
“The data gathered will be used to advance fire and smoke modeling systems,” Ivie said.
The project plans include restoring approximately 41,000 acres of aspen ecosystem – 26,000 acres by prescribed fire and 15,000 acres of mechanical thinning treatments designed to clear out dead aspen, cutback conifer encroachment and create space to encourage healthy growth of new aspen populations. It is also designed to help address aspen over-browsing by domestic and wild animals.
In addition, a combination of developing thresholds on grazing will be implemented. This could include removing cows and sheep for designated periods of time; increasing and/or limiting the issuance of hunting tags in defined areas; installing six-foot or taller fences in specified areas; installation of electric fences in designated areas; petitioning inventoried roadless areas; using mechanical treatments to create buffers next to private property; incorporating mitigating methods to protect the wildlife habitat of the northern goshawk, the Bonneville cutthroat trout and boreal toad; and maintaining the mountain’s mosaic pattern.
“Aspen ecosystems are capable of supporting one of the largest arrays of plant and animal species due to its high productivity and structural diversity,” Kling said. He said the lack of fire has caused the forests to become overly dense, with conifers expanding and limiting aspen growth, while over-browsing has resulted in the aspen stands being unable to produce new sprouts.
“Aspen stands help provide diversity, increase the amount of runoff that makes it into valley rivers and streams, do not burn as easily or as hot as conifer clusters and provide the largest amount of pounds per acre of usable forage, with the exception of some riparian areas,” Kling said.
The restoration project on the Monroe Mountain received a boost by the United States Department of Agriculture in December 2016. The USDA committed $434,107, including $375,765 from the United States Forest Service and $58,342 from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The money was part of a larger $32 million package being used to benefit projects in 10 states and designated to be used to help benefit ecosystems on private lands adjacent to federally managed acreage.
“The success of this project is the result of teamwork, hard work from many Forest Service employees, help and support from many partners and years of ongoing collaboration,” Kling said. “The Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative and joint chiefs’ programs were also key in implementing a great and important project.”