Drought hinders rebirth of fire area
As if it hadn’t been bad enough that one of Colorado’s worst droughts led to nearly 14,000 acres burning in the Pine Ridge Fire this summer outside De Beque, that same drought has hampered efforts to encourage important regrowth there.
Seeding with a temporary cover crop intended to stabilize soil at the fire site, prior to distributing native vegetation seed, failed to result in nearly the kind of germination hoped for by the Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction Field Office.
There just wasn’t enough rain this summer for the temporary vegetation, marketed under the name QuickGuard, to take root, “which is amazing, because it generally doesn’t take much,” said Wayne Werkmeister, the office’s associate field manager.
“That goes to show how truly bad it is out there,” he said.
The drought has made matters even worse for the field office because there were so many other big fires in Colorado this year that competition for reclamation money through the BLM’s fire funding program has been fierce. That meant the local office asked for less originally than it would have otherwise for the Pine Ridge Fire work, and ended up getting even a smaller amount.
Nevertheless, officials are buoyed by recent snow on the fire site, and hoping the snow cover will last into early next year, when they hope to carry out aerial seeding of native plant mixes.
“The more snow you have when you put it on up there, the better,” Werkmeister said.
Beyond contributing to moisture, snow helps drive seed into the soil as it melts, and the seed also penetrates into the snow quickly, reducing consumption by birds and rodents, he said.
The Pine Ridge Fire, the biggest in history within the field office’s jurisdiction, burned in late June and early July. The danger presented by acreage denuded of vegetation was made almost immediately evident when a storm shortly after the fire deposited ash and debris into the Colorado River. That forced the Clifton Water District to shut down its river intake for a day and a half because it couldn’t remove the smoky color and odor from the water.
A big flood coming off the burn area also could threaten the Union Pacific railroad tracks in De Beque Canyon. The BLM installed two gauges designed to help forewarn both Clifton Water and Union Pacific of further big storms, but the summer passed without further major incidents.
“We dodged a bullet, so to speak,” said Dale Tooker, general manager of Clifton Water.
He said the utility supports the BLM’s revegetation efforts. Meanwhile, the fire helped revitalize the district’s planning for infrastructure upgrades that would include a membrane filtration system that would make problems such as ash runoff in the river a non-issue. Clifton Water is raising its rates starting next year as it prepares for such upgrades, which had been considered years ago but were put off by the recession.
Sagebrush and wildlife
Revegetation efforts at the fire site also are important to trying to minimize the spread of cheatgrass, an invasive, nonnative species that can dominate landscapes. It dries out early in the year, which can lead to even more fires and more cheatgrass.
In addition, revegetation is important to wildlife, providing food and cover.
Fire can benefit wildlife habitat to some degree, leading to a more diverse landscape if it burns in mosaic patterns, as in the case of Pine Ridge Fire, which skipped over parts of the area within the burn perimeter.
Still, there was loss of areas such as sagebrush parks that are important to deer and also have been eyed as potential habitat for the imperiled greater sage-grouse. Jim Dollerschell, a BLM rangeland management specialist, said sagebrush doesn’t resprout after a fire. This fall, crews tried to gather seeds from adjacent sagebrush parks and spread them in burned areas.
“Unfortunately this year sagebrush seed was pretty sparse due to the drought,” he said.
The QuickGuard cover the agency spread consists of a sterile, annual plant, meaning it’s intended to immediately stabilize the soil but not reproduce and compete later with native plants. Its dead remnants also can provide cover from moisture-sucking wind and withering summer sun once native plants start to grow.
It’s so receptive to a little moisture that some of it that spilled along the runway at the Garfield County Regional Airport, where it was raining lightly as crews took off to seed the fire site, germinated a few days later.
But as of late in the year, many burn areas continued to look barren due to the meager growth of the plant.
It could germinate this spring and still provide benefits. But Werkmeister said it also now will be growing along with the native perennials that will be planted by air this winter, and will likely outcompete them and hinder their growth if there’s not that much moisture. He’s hoping the spring will be wet enough for both the QuickGuard and native plants to thrive.
The seeds alone, consisting of species such as Indian ricegrass and bottlebrush squirreltail, cost the BLM almost $900,000. The BLM will apply three different mixes — one for areas of best growth potential, one for steeper, rockier slopes, and one for areas where there’s already a cheatgrass problem. That latter mix includes species that compete well with cheatgrass, including a nonnative species, tall wheatgrass.
The field office had asked for $1.9 million for the fire rehabilitation work, but will end up with about $1.5 million. It had hoped to use some funds to build retention ponds designed to keep silt from reaching waterways in flooding, but wasn’t able to get that work started before Oct. 1, the start of the next federal fiscal year. Dollerschell said because there was so much fire activity going on around the West, funding wasn’t carried into the new fiscal year and the ponds won’t be built.
Existing ponds in the area did their job in catching sediment, though, without being breached or damaged, he said.
“So it’ll be a focus for us in the next year or so to get those cleaned out so that their capacity is increased again,” he said.
He said canyons in the area “have a lot of rock and armor in them, so if you do get some sediment runoff they’re going to capture a lot of that.”
Werkmeister said the field office didn’t get adequate funding to maintain the two storm warning gauges for the next two years, so it may be asking Clifton Water and Union Pacific for funding assistance.
Also, it was unable to get money to pay for seeding of forbs, plants particularly beneficial as browse for wildlife, because the BLM fire program had only enough funds to focus on seeds that primarily encourage watershed protection, Werkmeister said. However, Chevron and the National Wild Turkey Federation chipped in $10,000 apiece for forbs seeding.
The High Lonesome Ranch, which had property burn in the fire and also is a grazing permittee in part of the fire area, has agreed to contribute the use of heavy equipment for some of the revegetation work.
The area of the fire continues to be closed to all but specially approved uses, meaning activities such as hunting and recreational access aren’t allowed.
“When you get a fire like that ... in some areas it creates like a moonscape and it’s very enticing to individuals to do cross-country travel because there’s nothing there to stop them,” Dollerschell said.
That can add to erosion and creation of new trails.
The closure will aid in the revegetation work and provide protection to sensitive resources, such as the federally threatened Colorado hookless cactus. Seventeen of the plants are known to have burned in the fire.
If the drought continues into next year and seeds don’t germinate, that would be bad in the short term as far as trying to stabilize erosive slopes. But the seeds still could grow in following years.
The 2011 Cosgrove Fire, which burned some 1,700 acres near the Pine Ridge Fire, was reseeded by air last March.
“Because it was so dry we had no seed germination or very little seed germination, which was probably a positive thing because if it would have germinated, the fact that April, May and June were so dry, even July, those seedlings would have fried, would have died,” Dollerschell said.
That seed may germinate this spring, however.
“We’ve found that that seed can sit in the soil, on top of the soil for three-plus years and we still get some response,” he said.