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On the Dixie

Fighting a wildfire before it burns

Lindsey Winkel
Intermountain Region
November 15, 2023

A hilltop of pinyon and juniper trees sit above a sagebrush habitat on a cloudy day, and a power transmission line runs through.
Sagebrush habitat underneath a set of powerlines has been treated to reduce pinyon and juniper trees. To maintain the fuel treatment, the Forest Service will retreat it about every 10 years. (USDA Forest Service photo by Lindsey Winkel)

Firefighter Bode Mecham watched more and more spot fires ignite and knew the Mammoth Fire on the Dixie National Forest in Utah was quickly getting ahead of his team. It was June 2021. The spot fires, caused by flying sparks and embers, were multiplying, and becoming bigger until entire trees were in flames, and the fire was spreading through the canopy.

“Things went to pieces pretty fast,” said Mecham, a fire prevention officer on the Cedar City Ranger District, and incident commander for the initial attack of the fire. “It was maybe two hours between showing up and telling people it was time to evacuate.”

The on-scene Garfield County fire warden called the local sheriff to help evacuate the nearby Tommy Creek and Mammoth Creek subdivisions. The sheriff was ahead of the game and already had two deputies on the way.

“I knew that I had life and property threatened,” Mecham recalled “It was a weekend, and that subdivision is usually a vacation home place, but this weekend it was completely full of people. It had a large youth group, maybe 100 youth, that were camped down on a meadow within the heart of it.”

With so much at risk, Mecham requested support from multiple fire engines, hand crews and six large air tankers. He identified an old fuel break where vegetation had been completely removed around the subdivision about 20 years prior. The fuel break was designed to create an area void of vegetation to slow or stop wildfire, but it wasn’t very wide. He didn’t have much faith in it, but it was the best chance for a safe place for firefighters to engage, he said.

A corridor of masticated woodchips runs through a stand of pinyon and juniper trees.
Pinyon and juniper trees were masticated inside a fuel treatment area on the Pine Valley landscape to create a space for wildland firefighters to work from and reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire. (USDA Forest Service photo)

Canyon winds began to pick up. When Mecham saw flames higher than 100 feet within a few hundred yards of the old fuel break, he ordered all teams to disengage for their own safety. From a safe location firefighters watched the smoke turn from thick black to gray and hoped the flames had run into the fuel break, slowing the fire.

A task force leader went to scout it out and quickly reported that the fuel break was doing its job. With less vegetation to burn, the flames had decreased, and the team felt confident they could safely reengage with engines, dozers and other resources. Not one structure was lost, except for a camp trailer.

Fortunately, the 20-year-old fuel break served its purpose.

“I was shaking my head when I got up there and saw that the same structures, I expected to be engulfed in flames, were still standing. There were spot fires all throughout the subdivision that would have eventually burned them up, but we had our firefighters in there catching the spot fires and they felt safe doing it, and the fuel break allowed them to do it,” Mecham said.

Removing a buildup of flammable vegetation

Earlier this year, the Dixie National Forest’s Pine Valley Ranger District was identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service as one of 21 high-risk landscapes in immediate need of fuels treatments, including fuel breaks, to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

An aerial view shows contrast in vegetation running through pinyon-juniper habitat where trees have been removed.
An aerial view of a fuel treatment along the Dixie National Forest boundary near New Harmony, Utah helps create space for wildland firefighters to work from and defend the nearby community. (USDA Forest Service photo)

“If we don’t maintain fuel breaks and re-treat them every 10 years or so then the fuel grows back and a fire will burn through,” explained Micah Suwyn, the assistant fuels management officer for the Pine Valley Ranger District. “They also help us out a lot as somewhere we can start from and make a stand to secure fires. They’re designed to give us a starting place to work from.”

Hazardous fuel buildup on the Pine Valley Ranger District is primarily in pinyon-juniper tree woodlands. Following a century of fire suppression, pinyon-juniper has expanded to lower elevations that are now home to communities, increasing the risk of high-severity wildfire to private property and infrastructure.

Historically the lower elevations of this landscape were dotted with a diverse mix of sagebrush, native grasses, forbs and scattered pinyon-juniper. Now, expansive areas of thick pinyon-juniper trees have grown together allowing wildfire to spread rapidly. Suwyn and Mecham explained that hot air gets pushed up to the Pine Valley landscape from lower elevation communities like St. George, creating a hot and dry wind that spreads fire quickly through the tree canopies. Without fuel breaks, it’s difficult to safely put firefighters and equipment in front of a wildfire to stop it.

In addition to protecting private property and infrastructure, the Forest Service works to protect watershed health, rangeland and wildlife habitat. With congressional funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, 50,000 to 80,000 acres of fuel buildup will be mechanically chewed up or masticated, thinned or cut and piled to create new and maintain existing fuel treatments.

For all 21 landscapes, $930 million will support a 10-year plan to protect at-risk communities and infrastructure on National Forest System lands across the West, and to increase overall forest health and resilience. The Pine Valley Ranger District will receive approximately $7 million to implement fuel reduction treatments across state, federal and private lands through contracts, partnerships and agreements.

To learn more, watch an informative fuel treatments video.

To see a story map with more interviews and videos on the Mammoth fire, read “When a Community is Saved."