As the snow continues to melt, and fall in some cases, there are a few more things to take into consideration as the moisture makes it way downstream.
As many remember, last summer was not just difficult in terms of lack of water and feed for livestock, but was we were also plagued by numerous wildfires across the state.
One of the biggest fires to impact Converse County was the Arapaho Fire, which consumed more than 98,115 acres south of Douglas, cost federal, state and county governments millions in damages and lasted for more than two weeks.
But now, nearly 10 months since the blaze was silenced, the fire is still consuming funding and resources from local forestry management organizations, like the U.S. Forest Service – this time in the form of reclamation.
One of the major concerns facing the Forest Service right now is the potential for erosion. Because large stands of trees and forest floor vegetation were killed in the fire, their roots are no longer consuming water or holding topsoil in place.
“Yes, we are (concerned about losing topsoil in the mountains),” wildlife biologist Cristi Painter said. “We have been having problems anyway, because we got that torrential rain on the fire, even when it was still burning (last summer). It moderated the fire behavior, which was good because the fire was really squirrely, but what we saw was there was a ton of water coming down drainages that historically didn’t have that much water because you had trees catching it. It just blackened the soil and everything just went down.”
The Forestry Service did put in a request for Burned Area Emergency Rehab funding (BAER), and did receive some money to reseed severely burned areas with grass, a project they began last fall and will continue this spring.
“It’s a tricky little window,” Painter said, “you don’t want to put the seed on the ground too soon, because it will germinate and then winter hits, so you have to play this weird game with the weather, where you put the seed on the ground and it’s cool enough that it won’t germinate, but it will germinate in the spring.”
The melting snow will actually water the seed in the spring, allowing it to germinate. When that happens, the young grass will actually help hold some of the water up in the mountains, and, hopefully, help to keep soil in place.
The money is also being used to stabilize roads and restore culverts that clogged when the rain hit last August. Painter said a lot of the money will be used to “fix roads, fix culverts, fix areas where there was erosion, reseed, and weed-spray.”
The Forest Service bought 6,500 lbs. of grass seed and much of it has been used to seed approximately 350 acres of burned land.
Another area of concern is the ash that will be washing into the streams and rivers this spring.
Al Conder, the Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Fisheries supervisor for Casper, said that large amounts of sediment and ash can be harmful to fish and ecosystems.
“Short term, we lose the vegetation and the ash causes major shifts in water quality, which is pretty tough on the fish,” Conder said. “Physical attributes for the water begin to change, the water becomes cloudy, more opaque, so light has a harder time penetrating.
“Light is very important for plants and for the whole cycling for the food web in the ecosystem, and we can have some real shifts in pH with lots of ash, and if that gets bad enough, it can reach a point where it is pretty tough on fish, too.”
Conder said a number of factors can determine the impact a fire can have on local waterways, including the severity of the fire – regions in which it burns and the temperature at which it burns.
Fires that burn very hot on steep slopes, for example, could scorch the topsoil and kill all of the forage holding it in place, which means when the snow melts, much of that soil and ash could wash downhill very quickly.
Whereas, if the same fire were to burn on a relatively flat plain, the runoff would have very little impact because the runoff would not gain speed, but rather trickle away.
“It will certainly depend on the fire, the temperature of the fire, and the topography around the stream,” Conder said, “as well as how the runoff comes off. If you have a lot of snow, and it stays cool, it comes off fairly slow, but that would be much different than if we had a lot of snow and suddenly we get a couple of inches of rain on top of it . . . well – that would probably be the worst scenario.”
Officials will continue to monitor the foothills and mountains surrounding the region this spring and plan to trek into the woods once the snow has dissipated, to assess streams, brooks, roads and hillsides for further damage.
The Department of Environmental Quality was called to comment on the quality of the water and the impacts which may face irrigating ranchers, but no one from the DEQ returned a call.