Spring Lake, NC, USA –As a brush fire raged in the foothills east of Payson and Spring Lake earlier this month – coming within feet of some homes – everyone’s first concern was keeping the flames at bay.
But as she watched the fire from a nearby church parking lot, Kim Wolsleger was concerned about something else damaging her neighbors’ homes. “The real problem is going to be when it rains,” Wolsleger said. “The mud is going to come down.”
A downpour triggered a mudslide in Santaquin at the site of the 2002 Molly fire, causing millions of dollars in damage to homes in Spring Lake and Santaquin. Federal, state and local fire officials are certainly aware of such scenarios and are taking steps to prevent it happening again. Their strategy: replanting undergrowth and installing silt fences and electronic devices to alert people when a mudflow may be coming.
“I don’t think they’re expecting it to happen, but we’re planning for it,” said Barbara Gardner, Wasatch Front area manager for the state Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands – one of several agencies meeting Wednesday to flesh out home-saving strategies.
The Spring Lake fire started Aug. 1 when a downed power line ignited dry brush. Winds quickly whipped up the flames, causing them to jump draws, devour cheat grass and burn brush and oak over 760 acres. The inferno forced the evacuation of more than a dozen homes and the Maple Dell Boy Scout Camp.
Fire crews from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Utah County and cities as far away as Salt Lake City launched a combined ground and air assault, snuffing flames by Aug. 5. But fires also destroy the plants and roots that hold soil together on steep slopes when it rains.
After the Devil’s Den fire in 2006, Oak City, in west-central Utah, was flooded last year with torrents of mud and rocks. Forest Service spokeswoman Loyal Clark said a hydrologist has examined the Spring Lake fire area and the fire didn’t do as much damage as originally thought.
Wildfires sometimes burn with enough heat that they destroy the soil’s ability to absorb water, Clark explained. “It wasn’t as severe as the Molly fire,” Clark said. “But there will always be a potential for runoff.” Reseeding the burned-over soil and replacing plants will work in the lower Spring Lake fire area, Clark said. But Forest Service land near the top of the mountain is too steep.
Gardner said the agencies could use less-flammable plants to replace the cheat grass that served as tinder for the Spring Lake fire. She’s also looking at cleaning up the dead trees and dry brush on the Payson Canyon side of the ridge to prevent future fires. But plants take time to grow, and heavy rain is not likely to wait.
Clark said installing silt fences could capture some of the debris that would be washed downhill. Also, officials want to find a way to warn authorities and residents when trouble is coming.
Dave Bennett, Utah County’s emergency-services director, said he was told that an electronic weather station is being installed on the mountain that will send a signal to police dispatchers if a critical amount of rain falls. Police would notify residents to stay out of their basements, put sandbags around their property or get out before the mud hits.
Payson Fire Chief Scott Spencer said the city is bringing in sandbags to help property owners prevent flooding from hitting their houses.