Four and a half years after the High Park Fire

This is the winter of falling trees and many seedlings.

  Dec 25, 2016   iburke

It is Christmas Day, 2016, and the wind is gusting up to 70 mph. here in Colorado, in the heart of where the High Park fire burned in June of 2012. I don’t remember it this windy before, at this time of year, but it’s possible that it seems windier than before with so few trees with foliage to block the wind. On the other hand, I definitely do not remember a Christmas where you couldn’t stand outside, where the screen door broke when letting in the dogs, and when the internet went down (ours comes from a radio on top of Buckhorn Mountain, where the wind must be even stronger, if possible).

helloTo recap a little, for any who haven’t followed, June 9 – July 12 of 2012 in the foothills of the Front Range of the Rockies in northern Colorado followed one of the driest springs on record. Lightning sparked a fire only about a half mile from our home, and after smoldering for a bit overnight, blew up into the largest fire in our county, 87,200 acres and destroying 259 homes and cabins. All of

my nearest neighbors’ homes were burnt, but ours was spared, thanks maybe mostly to luck, diligent local volunteer firefighters, perhaps partly due to some mitigation near the house, and probably mostly because we are next to a large meadow where a firefighting squad from Idaho was tucked in for safety when the fire really blew through. We were evacuated for over 3 weeks, and the heroic volunteer and professional firefighters were amazing, as the fire kept re-erupting from embers – a “dirty” fire.

I wrote in the first year or two (see blogs below) about damage and about recovery – the incredible flooding that my PhD student Sara Brown had predicted would follow the fire, that we had not quite believed (with such low precipitation!), the phenomenal erosion, the very fast resprouting by aspen. I wrote about the amazing plants that came up in 2013 – those that we had never seen here before, such as American Dragonhead, plants that only respond to fire, and which my husband and I (both botanists) had never seen. They created groundcover and provided natural flood mitigation to some extent.

By last year, 2015, some pine seedlings were beginning to emerge. In the summer of 2016, some of the burned trees began to fall, the aspen saplings were 7 feet or more tall, and the seedlings more evident. The weed cover was pretty bad –mostly chenopods that may decline as native grasses come in, but a lot of mullen, Canada thistle, and cheatgrass. Many of the wildflowers have been fantastic.

I left in September 2016 after watching the recovery each week for three and a half years, and arrived home last week after two and a half months away.

The transition has been amazing – this has apparently been a very windy fall, and now our favorite running and horseback riding backcountry (non-maintained) trails are clogged with many fallen trees. Near the ridgelines on the northfacing slopes, so just at the highest wind velocities and highest dead-tree –densities, the windfall is astounding. Traversing these areas on foot or horseback is now completely impossible. I can only imagine what today’s windstorm will bring. It’s all part of the natural processes following fire, but seems quite dramatic --- I can’t get to the places special places as easily any more. Still, the seedlings are up to a foot tall now, mostly lodgepole but also some ponderosa, growing between the down timber. I have not seen Douglas fir seedlings yet.


I can’t wait to see what this coming spring and summer bring!