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Brian Head Fire nearly contained, evacuations lifted and assessment underway

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BRIAN HEAD, Iron County — Nearly four weeks after the Brian Head Fire erupted and destroyed more than a dozen homes, the fire is 85 percent contained, but crews are now worried about another danger.

As storm clouds gather, a Burned Area Emergency Response team is doing a rapid assessment of the burned area to find out how vulnerable the watersheds are in the event those clouds unleash heavy rains.

"Even though the smoke is no longer coming off the burn scar and it looks like firefighters are going home, there's a completely different emergency present on the landscape right now," said Brendan Waterman, leader for the response team.

It's a rush to head off flooding on the burn scar.

"If we start getting short duration, high-intensity rainfall events, these areas, these watersheds are going to react in very different ways than they have before," Waterman said.

Hydrologists, geologists, soil scientists, road engineers, botanists, and wildlife and fisheries biologists from federal and state agencies are part of the team. They will work together to survey the burned area, analyze the soil and recommended treatments to the forest supervisor.

"Digging into the soil to see how deep maybe the fire might have burned, the root structure, or the seeds within those soils," said Cathleen J. Thompson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"They'll approve the treatments that come back with some funding," Thompson said. "The Forest Service will go implement those treatments."

The first step in assessing potential downstream watershed impacts from the wildfire is to produce a soil burn severity map.The team will look at the risk of flooding, debris flows and rock slides.

Emergency stabilization work focuses on protecting human life and property, as well as critical cultural and natural resources. Runoff can increase 10 times in burn scars.

"That can produce a lot of debris flows and flash flooding, and pose a real risk to anybody on our roads and in our canyon bottoms," Waterman said.

Plans for reseeding come later.

"Long-term restoration will be the next phase," Thompson said.

The Garfield and Iron County sheriff's offices lifted the evacuation orders Tuesday as wildfire crews continue to gain the upper hand on the massive 71,000-acre fire.

Crews were improving the fireline around the perimeter, according to fire officials, while putting out hot spots within the fire's perimeter.

"In the northern part of the fire, crews are working in very steep country, which is a slow and methodical process," fire officials said Wednesday in their daily prepared briefing.

The human-caused Brian Head Fire started June 17 and has destroyed 13 homes and eight outbuildings. Hundreds of residents were forced to leave their homes for nearly two weeks.

The Dixie National Forest remained closed Wednesday, though South Panguitch Lake, North Panguitch Lake and White Bridge were open.

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Pat Reavy


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