July 12, 2005

After the flames II: All just speculation now

Even before we packed to return home, M. was trying to come to grips with what had happened. "I don't like change," she admitted. She had not been down the canyon since Sunday morning, when it was still smokey, and could only imagine what her favorite patch of the San Isabel National Forest would look like.

When I lived as a boy in Rapid City, South Dakota, one of Dad's favorite hunting spots was the McVey Burn, site of a large fire in 1939. I remember it as a mixture of forest and open areas, in contrast to the rest of the heavily wooded Black Hills, where "scientific forestry" and fire suppression had created a landscape much more wooded that that of the previous century.

The largest mule deer buck I ever shot lived on the brushy Poverty Mountain Burn in Frémont County, about seven years after the fire--great deer habitat. Just driving through the Hayman Burn southwest of Denver (site of the 137,760-acre Hayman Fire in 2002), you can see new meadows, abundant summer wildflowers, and a landscape that in many ways is more interesting than the thick forest that was there before.

That doesn't mean I expect everything to be wonderful. Some steep slopes are now bare, which means they can erode. The Hayman Fire burned over mostly decomposed granite soil, and that stuff erodes if you look at it cross-eyed. Erosion into streams and reservoirs and across roads was a major post-fire concern, and a lot of money was spent on various temporary structures to control it. The soils here tend to be more clayey, yet strong thunderstorms could produce mud flows and washouts. I am curious to see if any plants will sprout before autumn.

Salvage logging, if it occurs, would be on a small scale, I think. I do not anticipate a political fight over logging. This part of the San Isabel NF never produced much timber, and it has not been managed for it. Slopes are steep, and the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs tended to be slow-growing and skinny--again, partly due to fire suppresison. Occasionally you do find on the lower slopes big stumps of trees cut in the late 19th century, when the woods must have been more "open".

As for the trees, Gambel oak ("oak brush") will regenerate from its roots most of the time. Ponderosa pine will re-seed itself, creating new stands of too-thick trees, although in some places there won't be many seed trees left. The piñon pine in the lower foothills might come back, but much more slowly. Douglas fir and some white fir might come back in the moister places. Junipers can re-seed too, slowly. Rocky Mountain and one-seed junipers are basically gasoline on a stick: they burn fiercely and their fallen needles usually burn right down to the underlying soil ("mineral soil"), whereas a layer of pine needles often will not burn all the way through. It depends on the intensity of the fire.

That said, I expect to see fire scars that last for decades. Because this is not a timber-producing area, I do not expect the Forest Service to be replanting trees. The reproduction will be whatever happens on its own, most likely. If I am wrong about that, I will blog about it!

Today's report: Fire grew 500 acres, but it is 40-percent contained. In other words, they have a fire line dug around that much.

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