SARATOGA – Nearly a year after the Mullen Fire tore through the Medicine Bow National Forest, the area is showing signs of recovery.
“In the shrublands and grasslands, we often see amazing growth in the year following the fire. That is true on the Mullen,” said Katie Haynes, a botanist with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. “If you go out there, you will see vast meadows of riotous and bright flowers. It is gorgeous.”
About 65% of the Mullen Fire burned at moderate or high severity, and the remaining 35% was low-severity burn, or remained unburned within the fire perimeter. That means that while the fire was certainly devastating in terms of property loss, damaging as many as 66 structures, according to the last update Jan. 4, 2021, on Inciweb, certain areas in the burn area are already starting to recover.
“We’ve been collecting vegetation data for the past two months, and we’ve seen a lot of native plants rebound,” Haynes said.
In shrubland areas, the U.S. Forest Service has counted sometimes up to 60 native plants growing within a 20-meter circle. In areas that are more forested, the recovery will take much longer.
“The trees burn hotter, and you will see more soil impacts from the fire there. That means fewer plants coming up the first year, and it is going to take much longer to recover,” Haynes said.
There is still a lot of burned soil, ash and wood within the forested areas inside the Mullen Fire burn area.
“There are some plants in there, but they’re much more sparse. The soil surface has been damaged by the fire, and that is normal,” Haynes said. “The tree areas do burn hotter, because there is more there to burn.”
The Mullen Fire was big – approximately 176,877 acres – and that was unique. It was the largest fire in recorded Wyoming history, but as it has been studied, the Forest Service is seeing it start to recover like many other wildfires.
“It looks like the other smaller fires that we’ve seen, in terms of the vegetation that is returning,” Haynes said. “There also was a decent mosaic of high-burn and low-burn areas, and there are unburned patches within that area.
“It was extremely large, but it doesn’t look different on the ground from what we have seen from other wildfires,” she said.
The Forest Service has been working with both Colorado State University and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to survey the burn area. In 2012, CSU helped develop a protocol wherein locations were randomly generated all over the Squirrel Creek fire for survey, and the same methodology is in use this summer on the Mullen Fire.
“We hike to those locations and measure a 20-meter circle. We look at all of the plants that are growing in that circle, at the cover of native plants that are growing in that area, and record all that we find in that circle,” Haynes said.
After that, certain areas are selected for cheatgrass treatment, and others are maintained as control groups.
“That is so we can see how effective our treatment is in controlling the cheatgrass, and we also want to see if the treatment has any secondary effects that we aren’t anticipating on the native plant community,” Haynes said.
Cheatgrass is of primary concern, because it can easily convert an ecosystem from a native shrubland or a native grassland to a cheatgrass monoculture. It changes the soil microbial community, changing the carbon-nitrogen ratio, and it increases the chances for fire to return.
The USDA, Forest Service and Game and Fish started treating cheatgrass in June on 9,200 acres within the wildfire area through the aerial application of the herbicide Rejuvra to reduce or even eradicate the species on many burned areas. Treatment areas are located along the western slope of the Snowy Range, primarily in Wyoming, but also in a portion of the area that burned in Colorado.
Treatment will take place over an eight-week window; however, herbicide application is weather-permitting, and could result in full, partial or no-spray days.
“Fire spreads well in cheatgrass. Once you have cheatgrass dominating a landscape, you are much more likely to have another fire in three to five years. That further damages the native plants, while benefiting the cheatgrass,” Haynes said.
The Mullen cheatgrass project emphasis is on controlling non-native, annual cheatgrass on critical big-game winter ranges, enhancing native vegetation species, stabilizing soils and reducing erosion. Treating cheatgrass also greatly minimizes the risk of a second wildfire in this area by the reduction in fine fuels and diminishes the threat of shorter fire intervals in the future.
“It is great to continue collaboration efforts with our partners on controlling invasive species in the footprint of the Mullen Fire. Our past treatments have proven to be successful in managing cheatgrass, which is a huge threat to native ecosystem recovery post wildfire,” said Jackie Roaque, rangeland management specialist for the Laramie Ranger District. “We are optimistic that there will be the same success with this project, and at an even larger scale than in the past.”
Recreationists along the North Platte River and its tributaries should be aware of the planned spraying, and on-the-ground signage has been posted, along with maps. Short-term closures are possible during the project, depending on treatment timing. But from an ecological perspective, Haynes said it’s fine to recreate in a burn area, following leave no trace and conscientious safety practices normally used during outdoor recreation.
“There are dangers in the area that are real, and that don’t exist in a non-burned area,” Haynes said. “The chances of a falling snag is much higher, and there have been soil movement events, but as long as the public is aware of the chance of a debris flow, and thinks about where they are and where they park their vehicle, it is OK to go out there.”
For people interested in seeing regrowth in the Mullen Fire area, and who can do it safely, Haynes said she would recommend a trip to the forest.
“It is interesting to see it with your own eyes,” she said. “It can dispel some of the feelings from when the fire was happening. It was so scary, and it seemed like the forest would never recover. But you can go out there and see that it is recovering already."