Land, Water and People: Wildfire’s role in shaping the landscape

Six to seven foot tall aspen trees lined the trail, their pale green leaves quiet in the still air. Green heart-shaped arnica leaves and six inch tall stalks of fireweed covered the ground having recently emerged from their winter slumber. The lush spring growth contrasted sharply with the standing black trunks of burned spruce and fir trees.

This was the scene that greeted Pam and I as we hiked down through the Papoose Fire burned area towards Trout Creek west of Creede. Trout Creek burned in what was the last big push by the Papoose Fire.

On July 3, 2013, a storm cell formed over Baldy Mountain creating strong swirling winds. The fire had spread down to the lower part of Trout Creek the day before and the strong winds from the thunderhead provided an infusion of oxygen and force creating a firestorm that sent a giant plume of smoke 20,000 feet high. By the end of the day, 11,000 more acres had burned.

The Papoose Fire was one of three fires that made up the West Fork Complex burning 49,628 acres west of Creede. The West Fork Fire was the largest of the threesome burning 58,570 acres between Pagosa Springs and South Fork, while Windy Pass Fire was the smallest burning 1,417 acres just over the Continental Divide from Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The fires caused a great deal of disruption as more than 2,000 people had to be evacuated from homes, motels, RV parks, national forest campgrounds, and campers along forest roads and trails. U.S. Highway 160 was closed over Wolf Creek Pass and at one point Highway 149 was closed on both sides of Creede. The impact to South Fork and Creede businesses was huge and smoke filled the San Luis and Upper Rio Grande Valleys. 

Wildland fire has played a big role in shaping the landscape of our mountains. The frequency of wildland fires influences the type and density trees and other vegetation. Ponderosa pine trees thrive in areas where fire is a more frequent visitor. Frequent fires thin out competing vegetation, including young trees, while the thick bark of the large trees protects them from the heat creating open stands of pine. Human suppression of fires in these areas increases the density of young and mid-sized trees so when it does burn, fires can climb up to the tops of the old trees and kill them.

Other forest types naturally burn less often, so they build up a lot of fuel. When conditions are right and there is an ignition, these areas tend to burn big, like we saw with the West Fork Complex. These types of burns allow for a variety of pioneer species to move in or sprout from their roots, such as aspen, heartleaf arnica, fireweed, strawberry, thistle (both native and invasive), raspberry, red-berried elder and grasses and sedges. Over time, sometimes a very long time, climax species such as piñon and juniper, white fir, Engelmann and blue spruce, and subalpine fir will move back crowding out the pioneer species.

Wildland fire helps create and maintain diversity over the landscape. It’s one of the primary reasons we have meadows, aspen stands, old growth ponderosa pine forests and not just dense coniferous forests. Land managers can create and maintain these landscapes through prescribed burning and mechanical processes, such as logging and thinning, but more than half the Rio Grande National Forest is preserved in wilderness and roadless areas limiting options.

The next day, Pam and I took a walk up lower Ivy Creek and into the Weminuche Wilderness. Aspen stood tall and straight across the creek like light colored telephone poles. Blue spruce and subalpine fir were densely packed between them reaching two thirds of the way up to the tops of the aspen. In another few decades the conifers will begin overtopping the aspen and crowding them. Eventually, there will be another fire here resetting the successional clock, but hopefully, it will be less disruptive to humans than the West Fork Complex.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center.  He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.