Wildfires in Utah

Wildfires in Utah: Click to view larger image of Fireweed growing in burned area, Photo Courtesy US FWS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Fireweed Grows in Burned Area
Photo Courtesy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Prior to settlement by the pioneers at the end of the 19th century, wildfires were relatively common throughout the mountains of Utah. Wildfires were a result of natural disturbance, such as lightning strikes, but many were purposely set by Native Americans. Wildfires restarted the cycle of forest succession and also created a mosaic of plant communities across the landscape.

Although Utah’s changing climate has had a major influence, human factors have considerably altered the natural fire regime over the past 150 years. Fire frequency slowly declined prior to settlement by the pioneers due to a period of global cooling; however, fire activity increased considerably to its highest point during the settlement period between 1856 and 1909. This increase was linked to the dramatic growth in human population and activity, which lead to increased surface fuel from extensive timber harvesting, and inevitably to more ignition sources for more frequent fires.

Between 1910 and 1990, there was a dramatic decline in wildfires throughout Utah, despite the gradual increase in global temperatures. This was due to intensive livestock grazing, habitat fragmentation as a result of development, agricultural expansion, and effective fire suppression. As a result, shade-intolerant trees that relied on fire for regeneration, such as aspen and lodgepole pine, were often replaced by long-lived, shade-tolerant trees, such as spruce and fir. In general, this resulted in a gradual decline in diversity of plant communities.

As a result, more homogenous forests that are densely populated with trees and accumulated fuels are more susceptible to intense fires that burn hotter and are more difficult to control. In 2007, Utah had a record-setting fire season that burned over 629,000 acres, including the 363,000-acre Milford Flat Fire. We’re halfway through the fire season this year, and approximately 400,000 acres have burned in Utah, costing over $47,000,000 to control. Additionally, wildfires that have burned about three-quarters of the acreage this year were classified as large in size. It seems that increased temperatures, decreased snowpack, and a century of land use and management has resulted in a dangerous wildfire situation in Utah and much of the West. It will take some creative management strategies, such as sustainable timber harvesting or prescribed fires, to tackle this ongoing issue if we want to limit the risk and cost of larger and more frequent wildfires.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.


Images: Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, images.fws.gov

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Madany, M. H., and N. E. West. (1983). Livestock grazing-fire regime interactions within montane forests of Zion National Park, Utah. Ecology 64:661-667., https://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1937186?uid=3739928&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21100946519023

Neugebauer, C. (Jul 15, 2012). Burning through money: the cost of Utah wildfires. Salt Lake Tribune., https://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/54485976-78/fire-fires-cost-costs.html.csp

Utah Fire Info webpage: https://www.utahfireinfo.gov/

Williams, J., D. Albright, A.A. Hoffmann, A. Eritsov, P.F. Moore, J.C.M. de Morais, M. Leonard, J.S. Miguel-Ayanz, G. Xanthopoulos, P. van Lierop. (2011). Findings and implications from a coarse-scale global assessment of recent mega-fires. 5th International Wildland Fire Conference. Sun City, South Africa., https://www.fao.org/docrep/014/am663e/am663e00.pdf

Live Worldwide Network for Lightning and Thunderstorms in Real Time, Blitzortung, https://en.blitzortung.org/live_lightning_maps.php?map=30

A Modern Day Phoenix

“Phoenix,” an immature Golden Eagle
Aquila chrysaetos
Courtesy Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah (WRCNU.org)

Elk Bath
From a 2000 fire in the
Bitterroot National Forest in Montana

Courtesy Wikimedia &
USDA Forest Service
John McColgan, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

You may have heard about the golden eagle nestling that was badly burned during a recent Utah wildfire. Its nest was totally destroyed, but the little eagle had fallen to the ground and survived. After the fire, he was found by Kent Keller, a volunteer for Utah’s Div. of Natural Resources, who had banded the young eagle a month before. The eagle was dehydrated—his feathers, face, and feet were badly burned. So Keller obtained a permit from wildlife officials to intervene. Now in the care of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah the eagle is recovering rapidly. Even so, it will take a while for the damaged feathers to be replaced by healthy new ones. Phoenix–as is he was aptly named–won’t learn to fly for at least another year.

With this and other fire-related stories in the news, I‘ve been wondering about the fate of animals caught in wildfires. Scientific observations of animal behavior during fire events are rare. But by conducting post-fire surveys, and comparing results with unburned areas, some researchers have been able to piece together an idea of who survives, who dies and who thrives.

Obviously, faster and more mobile animals have the advantage. Birds can fly away and most mammals can outrun the spreading flames. Spring fires can be disastrous, destroying birds who haven’t fledged –like Phoenix– or mammals who are still too immature to escape. Fortunately, fires are more frequent in mid to late summer when little ones have matured.

If a fire moves through an area quickly, without superheating the ground, dormant animals or those hiding in burrows can survive. The surrounding soil provides plenty of insulation. Soil also protects most soil macrofauna and the pupae of many insects.

Animals that live their lives totally or partially in the water may not suffer at all during a fire. However, smaller bodies of water, such as streams, can quickly heat up fairly quickly. Oxygen loss is a problem as well. And fire-fighting chemicals dumped from the air can end up in water, killing fish, frogs and other animals.

Indirectly, the alteration of habitat by fire can also restructure animal populations. Interestingly, there are quite a lot of animals that benefit from post-fire habitats. For example, the insect population above ground may plummet during a fire, but then increase above pre-fire levels when fresh young plants start to grow back. Burned trees are attractive to certain beetles as breeding sites. An increase in beetles is a windfall for the woodpeckers that devour them. Swallows and flycatchers use burned dead trees as perch sites. They survey from on high and then swoop to catch their insect dinner. Seed eating birds like Clark’s Nutcracker, gobble up conifer seeds when cones open in response to fire.

Among mammals, ground squirrels, pocket gophers and deer mice generally increase after severe fires. Even large herbivores such as pronghorn or deer may benefit from the increased food and nutrition on recent burns. In turn, predators of these creatures enjoy a bumper crop as well.

For images of Phoenix the recovering golden eagle and a link to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah go to www.wildaboututah.org.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Images: Courtesy Wikimedia, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Gavin Keefe Schaefer and Dave Menke, US FWS images.fws.gov
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Baker, William L. 2009. Fire ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes. Washington, DC: Island Press.https://islandpress.org/ip/books/book/islandpress/F/bo7019409.html

Bradley, Anne F.; Noste, Nonan V.; Fischer, William C. 1992. Fire ecology of forests and woodlands in Utah. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-287. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr287.pdf

Hutto, RL. 1995. Composition of bird communities following stand-replacement fires in northern Rocky-Mountain (USA) conifer forests in Conservation Biology Volume: 9 Issue: 5 Pages: 1041-1058 https://www.fsl.orst.edu/ltep/Biscuit/Biscuit_files/Refs/Hulto%20CB1995%20fire%20birds.pdf

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah https://wrcnu.org/