Upper Provo Watershed Project on Wasatch WCS Landscape

By Elizabeth Wharton
Intermountain Region
July 31, 2023

Columns of smoke spiral up into blue skies and waft through thick clusters of conifers. Gentle, orange flames creep across the forest floor, licking bark trunks and branches. 

This scene would normally be a cause for alarm, especially in late June, as it signifies catastrophic wildfire. But the presence of specialized wildland firefighters observing the fire’s behavior closely and suggests a different reality. This group is actually monitoring a prescribed fire, a planned use of fire by trained specialists, that will help the forest to heal. Much like a doctor determines a patient’s course of treatment, land managers take a look at the ecosystems they steward and determine the best method, or treatment, to help them improve.

A man wearing a gray hard hat, yellow Nomex shirt, green Nomex pants, and black backpack carries a red drip torch and watches a dark brown pile of sticks and logs burn in orange flames. The fire sends white smoke into the air that wafts through the densely populated forest.
A wildland firefighter carries a drip torch and closely monitors a burning slash pile while working the Iron Mine Prescribed Fire Project, at the Heber-Kamas Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah. USDA Forest Service photo by Skylar Neugebauer.

After historical snowpack and a wet spring, the Heber-Kamas Ranger District of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest used prescribed fire on nearly 500 acres of the Iron Mine area to reduce vegetation and protect the Upper Provo Watershed in late June 2023.

Earlier this year, the Forest received $18.25 million from the Wildfire Crisis Strategy initiative to treat its lands, including using prescribed fire to trim down overgrown forests, protect values at risk, and rejuvenate fire adapted landscapes.

Iron Mine Prescribed Fire

This prescribed fire, labeled as the Iron Mine Prescribed Fire Project, reduced overcrowded, dense tree stands in the southeast portion of the Upper Provo Watershed to curb competition for water and nutrients and support growth of larger trees. This proactive work will allow the Forest to diversify and thrive, according to Heber-Kamas Ranger District Fuels Technician Skylar Neugebauer.

The thinning of tree stands made roads safer by removing hazardous trees that could topple on visitors or obscure wildlife from view. This is especially important as these roads grant critical access to popular recreation destinations in the area. These treatments double as a strategic fuel break, which will help firefighters to safely defend the nearby communities of Samak, Kamas, Oakley, and Marion in an event of wildfire. However, the main goal of this project is to promote and protect the overall health of the Upper Provo Watershed system, Neugebauer said.

“Removing trees at a large scale increases the available water that does not get consumed, allowing it to flow and fill our local reservoirs,” Neugebauer said. “We saw the benefits of that this year. With the heavy snow and spring rains we received, all our reservoirs are at or close to full capacity. This was a huge factor in allowing us to burn Iron Mine in late June.”

Facing down a mountainside, two firefighters, dressed in the standard Nomex yellow shirts and green pants, red drip torches, and black hard hats, walk towards the bottom of the mountain where a black patch of earth can be seen. Black and green trees, rocks, logs, and stumps speckle the mountainside.
Two wildland firefighters, armed with drip torches, trudge down a mountainside while treating treacherous terrain on the Iron Mine Prescribed Fire Project, at the Heber-Kamas Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah. USDA Forest Service photo by Skylar Neugebauer.

These treatments are essential to protecting the Upper Provo Watershed and the drinking water of two million Utahns. If a wildfire were to burn in or near the watershed, the resulting lack of vegetation could lead to erosion, flooding, and the contamination of Utah’s reservoirs, lakes, and rivers, according to Neugebauer.

To conduct this 10-day operation, the Ranger District ordered four engines, two squads, one Type 1 Initial Attack crew, and two Wildland Fire Modules. A Wildland Fire Module is a team of at least ten specialized firefighters who plan, monitor, and ignite burns for fuel treatment purposes and forest benefits. These resources came from all over Idaho and Utah; multiple resources from Salt Lake and Spanish Fork Ranger Districts, two engines and a Wildland Fire Use Module from the Fishlake National Forest, another Wildland Fire Use Module from the Boise National Forest, and two contracted engines.  The skilled sawyers and fire specialists succeeded in burning approximately 500 acres.

The Upper Provo Watershed Restoration Project encompasses 91,000 acres within the watershed. It is divided into phases, with the Iron Mine Prescribed Fire Project falling under Phase 4 and 5. Earlier phases involved scouting and planning different treatment types within the project area, acquiring appropriate permissions to do work, and treating other areas, besides Iron Mine, within the Upper Provo Watershed project area.

How Prescribed Fire Restores Forests

A man wearing a blue hard hat, yellow Nomex shirt, green Nomex pants, and boots, walks through a cluster of green trees and piles of burning logs and sticks and towards the camera. The orange fires are small and send gray smoke into the blue sky.
A member of a Wildland Fire Module, a team of specialized firefighters, carefully treks around slash piles working the Iron Mine Prescribed Fire Project, at the Heber-Kamas Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah. USDA Forest Service photo by Skylar Neugebauer.

Land managers use hazardous fuels and forest health treatments to reduce dangerously dense vegetation, which can fuel wildfire, through mechanical thinning, the removal of trees from overstocked forests, and prescribed fire: controlled, low-intensity burns to clear excess debris from the forest floor.

Typically, fuels and forest health treatments require land managers to reintroduce fire back into the ecosystem. However, because forests are often so overgrown and dense, thinning is often required before prescribed fire to reduce the number of trees to an appropriate level. Then, land managers use a low-intensity ground fire, to clean up the forest floor and help restore the forest’s health and resilience.

"As we continue to look at the challenges we face meeting Wildfire Crisis Strategy goals, it’s important to consider all types of fire and forest management tools to accomplish the work,” said Dano Jauregui, Heber-Kamas district ranger.

“The more we burn, the more credibility we create as an agency, the more experience we build in using fire as a tool, and the more comfortable the public gets to seeing fire being used the right way,” Neugebauer said.       

A National Crisis

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service invested $131 million to combat unwanted wildfire in support of the agency’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy. This initial investment covered 10 landscapes, approximately 208,000 acres across 10 landscapes in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

In early 2023, USDA Forest Service selected the Wasatch Landscape as one of 11 additional landscapes as part of the strategy. The landscape is called the Wasatch Wildfire Crisis Landscape Project, and includes approximately 1.1 million acres, encompassing about 868,000 acres of National Forest System lands. This landscape also includes private land and lands managed by the State of Utah, Bureau of Land Management, and more.

With the understanding that confronting the wildfire crisis across the nation cannot be accomplished alone, the USDA Forest Service works with other federal agencies, Tribes, states, local communities, private landowners, and partners to identify and treat critical landscapes.

Learn more at the Wildfire Crisis Strategy in the Intermountain Region webpage.