When fire rages through a landscape, it alters more than just the scenery. Ecosystems defined by the vegetation that once clung to steep hillsides are drastically changed in the wake of a ruthless wildfire, and years may pass before the terrain returns to what it was before. Sometimes it never does.
With the Weber Fire nearly contained and fire crews finishing the last stages of mop-up before leaving the area, residents are left to stare at the 10,133 acres blackened by the fire and wonder what comes next.
The trajectory of ecosystem recovery after a major fire depends greatly on the type of fire and composition of the ecosystem itself, according to Monique Rocca, associate professor of wildland fire science at Colorado State University. However, most ecosystems are well equipped to heal naturally.
Rocca, an expert in the role of wildfire in natural ecosystems, says historical wildfire activity and the health of the ecosystems all play a role in the type, and speed, of regrowth after fires.
“The effects of fire on ecosystems vary a lot depending on what you are looking at,” Rocca said, in a phone interview on Friday. “You have to look at the particular ecosystem, what the historical conditions were in the area, and what type of fire impacted the area.”
The Weber Fire, concentrated in Weber and East canyons, raged through multiple unique landscapes. On the west side of the fire, through Weber Canyon, the fuels consumed by the blaze were comprised of Gamble oak and piñon-juniper woodlands. On the east side, the fire burned through tall stands of conifers and ground littered with pine needles.
Rocca said the diversity of the landscape will lead to a wide range of rehabilitation rates.
“Piñon and juniper are not well adapted to come in quickly after fire,” Rocca said. “Piñon and juniper take a long time to come back in those ecosystems.”
When hot fires burn through piñon-juniper stands they are typically wind driven, Rocca said. Due to the tendency for the stands to be thick and chocked with undergrowth, it is easy for the fire to climb “ladder fuels” into the crowns of the trees. As a consequence, most fires result in tree mortality for piñon-juniper woodlands.
Conifer forests, on the other hand, see a much greater likelihood of tree survival after fire.
“Ponderosa pine and conifers have a lot of adaptations to survive fire in their healthy natural state,” Rocca said. “If the stands are not too thick and the undergrowth is cleared, it is not unusual for pine stands to survive fire and thrive afterwards.”
Rocca said natural rehabilitation of the landscape after fire is usually first seen in the undergrowth.
“The ground layer will probably come back quickly in most cases,” she said. “In the piñon-juniper a lot of resprouting shrubs will come up. In a place that has big, large trees that are well spaced, you could see very little evidence of the fire in a year or two. The understory will come back and the trees are still there. Overall, in most landscapes you are talking about very quick regrowth of the understory, but slow regrowth of trees in the natural environment.”
Though woodlands have their own path to recovery post wildfire, efforts made by federal and state agencies and private landowners can support natural regrowth and aid in mitigating human impacts to the landscape during the fire fight.
At a community meeting in Mancos Monday night, representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service gathered with roughly 100 community members to discuss proactive steps toward healing the Weber Fire landscape.
“We want to talk about rehabilitation and what the next phase is after the fire is controlled and contained,” said Ivan Messinger, a wildlife biologist with the Dolores Ranger District and one of two resource advisors assigned to the Weber Fire. “Rehabilitation is a process, and we want to let you know what the agency is doing on federal lands, what the state is going to cooperate with on state lands and what programs are available to help private landowners.”
In total, the Weber Fire impacted 7,435 acres of BLM land, 901 acres of state land, and 1,797 acres of private property.
Messinger said the first step in rehabilitation is mitigation of the containment lines dug around the fires perimeter. Lines drawn by hand crews and machinery will be analyzed and addressed to be sure the ground disturbances will not impact water runoff and other features of the landscape.
The second step is emergency stabilization and rehabilitation when the BLM will develop a rehabilitation plan for reseeding, revegetation and runoff control.
The final step in recovery from the federal perspective is Burned Area Emergency Response, which features long-term strategies and planning for vegetation development and soil stability. BAER teams are put together to address this final, critical component of fire recovery.
State land officers will follow much of the same rehabilitation process on state-owned and managed land impacted by the local fire.
“We will most likely follow through with whatever is done on the other land in the area,” said Kent Grant, a logistic forester from the Colorado State Forest Service. “There will be some real delegation efforts on the state lands.”
Grant cautioned area residents to expect the landscape to “look a little rough for a while,” but at the same time, understand the natural world has a recovery process all its own.
“Nature has a way of recovering, though it doesn't always happen overnight,” Grant said. “Plants and vegetation will come. Oak brush will come. Actually, oak brush is one of those things if you try to get rid of you can't. I'm guessing by this fall you will have sprouts of maybe a foot tall or more. That is something you can look forward to, a little green on the slopes.”
Grant also mentioned the state's nursery, which offers expertise and trees for sale to the general public.
In terms of private land rehabilitation, NRCS offers numerous resources for landowners hoping to revegetate their property and local Colorado State University extension offices have resources for landowners who need information on vegetative recovery after wildfire.
“There is a lot of information out there to help you as you move forward,” Grant said.
Community workshops and meetings will be planned moving forward to keep the community apprised of rehabilitation work in the area and resources available to landowners, noted Connie Clementson, BLM agency administrator for the Weber Fire. Clementson said the next steps involve healing for the area and its residents.
“We want to get people thinking about the future and healing yourselves, your lives and your land,” she said. “This is about moving forward.”
For more information on Weber Fire rehabilitation, contact the BLM Tres Rios field office at 882-7296 or NRCS at 565-9045.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at [email protected]