FRUITLAND, Duchesne County — Sebastian Ziesler owns a secondary property near the Strawberry River, a popular fishing and recreational watercourse in eastern Utah. He wouldn’t call himself an avid angler, but he enjoys spending time by himself or with his family by the crystal-clear waters.
“When I’m up there, I’ll put on waders and walk around and try not to cast too many flies into the brush,” the Park City resident said. “And then when I’m up there with my kids, we like playing and taking the inner tubes and floating around, and taking squirt guns and stuff — just having fun.”
However, that all changed when a wildfire broke out on July 1. It blackened hundreds of thousands of acres that surround the river. In fact, the massive Dollar Ridge Fire, scorched roughly 107.6 square miles within Wasatch and Duchesne counties, and destroyed 74 homes and hundreds of other structures.
Then, on July 22, a storm passed by the fire’s burn scar and caused a debris flow, which is a flood of ash and debris left from a wildfire. The ash, debris and other sediment left over from the Dollar Ridge Fire came tumbling down into the river near Camelot Resort.
“A tiny bit of rain just caused a huge flood,” Ziesler said. Fifty people had to be rescued after the debris flow, Duchesne County Sheriff’s authorities said at the time, and Strawberry River Road west of the resort will be closed until at least 2019 because of the damage the flash flood caused.
Ziesler noticed something different about the river after the flood, too. That beautiful, crystal-clear water he and his family enjoyed so much had turned dark and sort of a grayish-brown.
“You would definitely not want to go in it,” he said.
Garn Birchill, an aquatic biologist for the Division of Wildlife Resources, is one of the few state wildlife officials to return to the Strawberry River at the spot near the resort since the flood. He said he hasn’t been back since another debris flow struck on Aug. 22, which likely extended the damage to the river.
He was dumbfounded by the devastation he did see, however. Like Ziesler, Birchill relished the lush greenery of willows and cottonwood trees, the translucent river and the abundant amount of the fish and other wildlife. Everything he remembered about the area had vanished.
“It was like a moonscape,” he said, describing the scene. “It’s just mostly dirt with some stick trees that are dead.”
It was the outcome state wildlife officials feared when the fire broke out in because things get tricky when wildfires break out near watersheds, said Trina Hedrick, northeastern region aquatics manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources. She warns it could take years before the river returns to what it used to be like before the fire.
A fire's effect on water
Trees and other vegetation traditionally absorb rainwater and protect areas from flash floods. However, when they’re destroyed by wildfire, it leaves the land vulnerable for debris flows. Those flows can easily reach waterways in watershed areas, such as what happened with the Strawberry River.
To be clear, the fire hasn’t affected the whole water system. Alan Ward, the Division of Wildlife Resources fisheries biologist for the nearby Strawberry Reservoir, said the reservoir hasn’t been impacted by the fire that started by unknown human cause just east of it. Hedrick said the river from Camelot Resort (just west of Strawberry Pinnacles) eastward to Starvation Reservoir will likely be affected for a while, with the most known devastation by the Pinnacles.
Wildlife officials learned from previous wildfires in the state that not only are these debris flows immediately destructive, it can take years for a river to clear itself of the ash and other debris from the flood.
“It’s always going to be an issue after a wildfire or if you’ve had a significant burn in your watershed. That’s just the reality,” Hedrick said. “The amount of burn area, that’s what’s going to vary. That’s certainly going to affect the amount of ash and sediment coming in and how bad it is.”
The debris flows likely had an equally negative impact on the river’s fishing prospects, also. The river is normally full of brown trout, as well as bluehead and flannelmouth suckers. However, enough ash and sediment from floods can clog a fish’s gills and suffocate it.
That’s why Division of Wildlife Resources officials advise anglers to skip fishing anywhere in the river east of Camelot Resort for the time being. Not only is it currently closed to most people, Birchill said there’s probably nothing left to catch anyway.
It’s always going to be an issue after a wildfire or if you’ve had a significant burn in your watershed. That’s just the reality." — Trina Hedrick, northeastern region aquatics manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources
State wildlife officials had been up to the river to calculate fish totals in 2017 and they estimated at least 2,000 fish per mile in some areas — a record since the state first tallied fish populations in the 1970s, Birchill said. The exact damage to fish and wildlife in the area won’t be known until this fall when biologists return to sample the river, but officials are prepared for the worst.
“We may not even find any fish,” Birchill said of the area by Strawberry Pinnacles.
“It is unfortunate because there were some amazing fish there,” Hedrick added.
The rebuilding process
There are signs of hope within the burn scar, however.
While the surrounding community rebuilds from fire, the wildlife rebuilding began just weeks after the fire erupted. Utah Fire Info shared images of small green plants that began to sprout beside the charred tree remains — a symbolization of the rebirth after the fire.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation arrived on the scene once the fire was extinguished in some parts of its path and state wildlife officials will join them to assess the damage in the coming months. They’re optimistic most of the trout that survived will likely resettle upstream in the first few miles of the river that was virtually untouched just east of Strawberry Reservoir.
“As long as the upper edge stays fine, there’ll be fish that can migrate (over) and occupy the places,” Birchill said. “They’ll still spawn up by (Soldier Creek Dam) and fish will drip down.”
The bluehead and flannelmouth suckers downstream of the Pinnacles might not be as lucky, Hedrick admitted. They are a more sensitive species and officials are concerned about their future in the river.
Any restocking or fish rehabilitation would likely come after the amount of ash and sediment is out of the system and the risk of further debris flows has dissipated, which may not be for another few years, according to Birchill. Wildlife officials advise visitors to recreate elsewhere for the foreseeable future while the Strawberry River recovers.
The reality is that it will likely take years before the river clears out. It could take just as long for that section by the Camelot Resort and Strawberry Pinnacles to return to the recreational and fishing destination it once was before the fire.
“It’s just going to take a while,” Hedrick said, “so folks just have to be patient.”