Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah
image Looking North at the island forest high up on the west slope of the Stansbury Mountains above Iosepa. Notice the mixed forest of scraggly Douglas Fir and similarly scraggly mountain mahogany.

August 29, 2013
Recent wildfire triggers forest memories

The Patch Springs Wildfire that just devastated some of my favorite primitive areas on the west side of the Stansbury Range, reminded me of the 44,000 acre “Big Pole Fire” that also started by lightning strike on Aug. 6, 2009 and charbroiled an area nearly twice the size of the 25,000-acre Deseret Peak Wilderness Area.

I would like to share my report from when I went to explore the after effects of that fire. When I went out to Delle Ranch Road in early April 2010, to my dismay I discovered that the entire west side of the range had been burned.

Driving south on Delle Road, I passed the ruins of Delle Ranch, which are now fenced off because of idiots who took pleasure vandalizing the area. What compels an ignorant wretch to destroy our heritage or litter in the wilderness will never be understood by me.

I then proceeded south and found Chokecherry Creek to be dry as a bone, which seemed unusual. The road beyond Chokecherry Creek became extremely rocky and rugged, and it severely challenged my 4×4 in this area. There was a good flow in Pass Canyon Creek, but it saddened me to see beautiful Pass Canyon all burned, from the bottom all the way to 10,000 feet high on the south side.

I continued .5 miles beyond Pass Canyon Road and parked my vehicle in an elevated flat on the right hand/west side of the road that overlooks Skull Valley at an elevation of 5,843 feet. I had noticed a small group of unburned pines high on the slope of North Willow Peak amid all the fire devastation. I determined that I was going up to those pines to see if any good timber was left on the range.

I headed due east from my parking spot across the road and the old Iosepa ditch, which was completely obvious now since the fire had denuded the vegetation. I then headed straight toward the mountain, and passed a marshy spring on my left en route to the base of the mountain.

The climb up that mountain was difficult passage through charred moonscape of blackened rock and skeletal juniper trees. I gained over 1,000 feet in elevation in .6 miles through this depressing burned out waste. At about the 7,000 foot elevation, I found a small patch of Rocky Mountain Juniper, Mountain Mahogany and some mountain grasses and flowers that had escaped the fire somehow. This little forest was a welcome respite from the bleakness I had been hiking.

My black Lab “Duke” and I continued another .6 miles up the ridge and arrived at what I call the “Table.” It is an area of several acres in size that is flat as a table on top of the horrible mountain slope that Duke and I had scaled.

Just before arriving at the table, Duke spooked out a group of 10 mule deer that looked strong and healthy as they bounded away across the mountain through some remaining Rocky Mountain Juniper. I also saw a large sage hen that thankfully Duke didn’t see. I followed this bird for a few minutes and got some great pictures of him.

Now back to the table. This table is now a total oasis on the west side of the Stansbury Range since it is the only area for miles that was spared by the great fire. The elevation at this table is about 7,800 feet and to get to it required me to gain 2,017 feet in elevation in 1.2 miles, which is a stout climb.

The grass on the table was matted and in clumps, no doubt burned off somewhat by the fire. But fortunately there were several stands of fir nearby that, due to being shielded by the mountain from the 50 to 60 mph winds that drove the blaze, were spared its fury.

The views west across Skull Valley far below, Iosepa in particular, and the Cedar Mountains beyond, were incredible. I could see the snow-capped Deep Creek Mountains off to the southwest rising above the brown and bleak intervening desert ranges. I could also see Pilot Peak to the northwest and the snow-covered Raft River Mountains to the north.

There was abundant evidence on the ground that the Big Pole Canyon wild horse herd was still roaming around the area even after the burn. I expect that this little pocket of forest will become quite popular with animals for miles around over the next several decades. If you look southeast while standing on this table, you will have an astounding view of the west cirque headwall of 10,685 foot Stansbury Peak, the second highest peak in the range.

On this day it was snow covered and there were great drifts off of the north facing ridgelines reflecting brightly in the sun. Before the great fire, this must have been one of the most stunning views of beauty in the Stansbury Mountains. The great rocky faces of the peaks are impressive enough, but the tall straight multitudes of burned heavy timber are a grim and depressing site.

Thousands of burned sub alpine fir stood straight and tall like blackened limbless match sticks, and exposed the charred forest floor to direct sunlight below the cirque headwall. In my forest oasis near the table it was an altogether different scene. The smell was not that of charcoal but thick rich pine. The shaggy Douglas fir with drifted snow between them, littered with pine needles and cones, was a welcome respite from the otherwise gloomy hike.

This is an interesting and unique little forest as the Douglas fir and Mountain Mahogany grow together closely. The areas in the shadows of the fir trees that were not snow covered were densely carpeted with pine cones, needles and twigs. I explored deeper into this stand of trees and discovered several bunches of white fir growing among the Douglas fir. This was enjoyable for me because the white fir is a gorgeous, conical, silver- blue tree that stands out starkly when grouped with the unruly, sometimes gnarled dark green Douglas fir.

The main way you can tell these trees apart is by looking at the cones. Douglas fir cones hang downward from the branch and have forked scales that protrude from the cone bracts and look like a serpent’s tongue.

White fir cones are anywhere from two to five inches in length, fatter, and they stand upright on the branch. Douglas fir cones drop off whole and litter the ground around the base of the tree. White fir cones disintegrate on the branch, and leave a spike where the cone once was.

That was probably more than anyone wanted to know about those trees, but that is the kind of forest detail that interests me. In next week’s article, I will describe my descent down into the remains of Big Pole Canyon and what I found there.

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