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Panelists Discuss Fire from the Ground Up at CSU High Park Symposium

Bill Cotton
Colorado State University

Scientists and forest managers gathered today to discuss the challenges and lessons learned from this summer’s High Park Fire. It took three weeks to contain the more than 87,000 acre wildfire, which burned 259 homes in the foothills northwest of Fort Collins.

More than a dozen speakers and multiple panels hop-scotched between a wide variety of topics including fire management, forest ecology and hydrology

But it was U.S. Forest Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard who set the context for how exactly forest fires have changed in recent years. He explained that the country isn’t necessarily seeing more forest fires, but the number of acres burned has gone up dramatically.

“They’re larger, they’re hotter, they’re more difficult to control, and there’s more in the way--high values in the way; more people, more homes,” he said.

Hubbard added that the fire season is about 60 days longer than it was 10 years ago.

These changing conditions present challenges for local agencies like the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department, which coordinated thousands of reverse 911 phone calls inside the High Park burn zone. Among other challenges, Undersheriff Bill Nelson says some of the difficulties his office ran into were not all about residences having landlines.

“We had deputies in polyester cotton uniforms going in without fire clothing to do door to door,” he said. “For those of you know about how polyester burns, it kind of melts and sticks to stuff.”

In addition to better work clothes, Nelson also said radio dead spots within the foothills were another issue.

“We did a have a lot of problem of the coverage, and we’re still trying to address that with a radio tower, which may or may not have helped on this incident,” he said.

From there the event moved on to expectations for recovery inside the High Park Fire burn zone. Based on previous research from the 2002 Hayman fire, U.S. Forest Service Scientist Paula Fornwalt says she expects a new understory to develop in just a few years. But she said it could be tough for Ponderosa Pine and Douglas fir to replenish in the most harshly burnt areas.

Credit Bill Cotton / Colorado State University
Colorado State University
Paula Fornwalt, Scientist with the USDA Forest Service, discusses regrowth of trees and vegetation inside the High Park Fire burn zone.

“This is because Ponderosa Pine and Douglas fir seeds don’t disburse real far. And they also don’t maintain crown seed banks the way Lodgepole Pine does,” she said.

Regrowth of trees and other vegetation matters because without it, hillsides are vulnerable to serious erosion and flooding. That’s already evident in sediment darkening the Poudre River after recent rainstorms.

Local and federal authorities have mulched many of the hillsides to mitigate the problem. But with a quarter of the Poudre River watershed burned, Jill Oropeza with thecity of Fort Collins’ Utilities said it is actively monitoring water quality.

“In large part what we’re trying to achieve is an understanding what is our new normal. We recognize we’re at the mercy of a natural system and this is something that happens in forested landscapes,” she said. “We’re learning how to adapt our processes and our monitoring abilities so that we can use that resource.”

Oropeza says that translates into watching more things, and monitoring water quality in more places. And according to other scientists this new normal will be around for some time. Based on research from the 2000 Bobcat Fire that burned more than 10-thousand acres in Larimer County, CSU Professor of Watershed science John Stednick says it will take 3 to 6 years for a full hydrologic recovery.

“The stuff we saw on Bobcat was closer to 3-4 years. Hydrologically that stuff responded in 2 years because they were pretty aggressive in the burn area,” he said.

As scientists begin to pose future research questions to study the High Park’s burn zone, Kathie Mattor, coordinator with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute—who was also a fire evacuee—asked them to approach the projects with compassion for fire victims.

“From a personal perspective the scientists and outreach groups to be respectful and empathetic of the situation at hand, and just realize the close-to-home reality of these situations,” she said.

Mattor also issued a call to action for residents affected by the fire to continue sharing their experiences. 90 days after the fire started, it’s a process that’s just getting started. But both scientists and victims know it’s a process that will take years to fully complete.

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