Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Post-fire future remains uncertain

Conditions will depend on rain events and rehabilitation success

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson, center, talks to Sun Valley resident Bill Cassell, right, Friday at the MESH Art gallery in Ketchum. Photographer Jeff Lubeck, center-left, is talking to Timber Gulch resident Steve Wagner, left, whose house was nearly burned by the Beaver Creek Fire. Photo by Willy Cook

Express Staff Writer

    If the dirt remains on the hillsides long enough for vegetation to re-establish itself following the Beaver Creek Fire, outdoor enthusiasts should be able to enjoy a proliferation of aspens and wildflowers, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson told a group of people at the MESH Art gallery in Ketchum on Friday.
    “We just need to make it through the next three years and then we’ll be able to breathe easier,” Nelson said.
    Sparked by lightning and propelled by wind and hot weather, the fire burned 174 square miles of pristine backcountry on the west side of the Wood River Valley in August.
    Nelson spoke at the gallery against a backdrop of before, during and after photographs of the fire taken by gallery co-owner Jeffrey Lubeck. Lubeck said that even though he owns a house in the Wood River Valley, his real home was on the trails of Greenhorn Gulch, most of which was scorched by the fire. He said 20 percent of the proceeds from sales of his photographs would be donated to fire rehabilitation projects.
    Nelson said Ketchum could have fared much worse had the Castle Rock Fire in 2007 not created a buffer to the recent blaze. The Castle Rock Fire burned about 48,000 acres, including large areas on the southern and western flanks of Bald Mountain.
    “Little did we know how fortunate we were as a community to have that fire occur six years before,” Nelson said.
    However, he said, luck was against the area when a 10-year rainstorm dumped three-quarters of an inch of water during one hour in September, bringing mudslides down the sides of Greenhorn and Deer Creek. He said Deer Creek was running 10 to 12 feet deep following the rains, and the drainage is still at high risk for more slides.
    Nelson said about $3.5 million was spent this fall on about 6,000 acres of aerial reseeding and 700 acres of mulching, intended to stabilize the hillsides and provide wildlife forage. He said valley residents will have to wait until spring to judge the success of those efforts.
    “The percentage of germination from aerial seeding can be good or not so good,” he said.
    Nelson said that due to fire suppression, the area was losing aspen trees to conifer forests over the past few decades. He said the Beaver Creek Fire provided an opportunity for those aspens to regrow from suckers that have already begun to shoot up from still-living roots beneath the blackened trunks.
    “We’ll probably be seeing a lot more aspens on the hillsides,” he said. “I think it’s going to look great here in a couple of years.”
    However, Nelson said recent research has shown that a warmer and drier climate has impeded forest recovery in other places following fires. He said it appears that some previously forested areas will remain brush-covered.
    “We may be unintentionally monkeying around with global warming,” he said. “We may see some shifts in our forest landscapes.”
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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