The 2020 wildfires in Colorado were historic. Before last summer, the Hayman Fire was, for 18 years, the largest wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history at over 138,114 acres.
It burned about 215 square miles across large swaths of Teller, Park and Douglas counties. It was a massive fire that impacted most Front Range communities and even generated its own weather. If you were here when it was ignited June 8, 2002 northwest of Lake George, you no doubt shudder at the memory of the sickening plume of churning smoke that billowed ominously for weeks.
This year, the Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires each burned more than the Hayman.
Of course, these events have huge impacts on big game and aquatic life within burn zones. What happens when wildlife habitat is charred or, worse, turned to ash? How does it impact the creeks and lakes within the zones?
As we look toward 2021 and beyond, what can we learn from these incidents and does the Hayman Fire have any lessons?
In early December, I went searching for answers that I might share with fellow sportsmen and women. I found myself standing just off Trail Creek Road, overlooking a section of the Hayman Fire burn area in Teller County with Officer Tim Kroening, Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager based in Woodland Park.
In the distance to the west we could see the pyramidal Signal Butte and the jagged spires of Turkey Rocks, two landmarks familiar to the hunters, OHVers and residents of this area of Colorado.
From this vantage point, we could see a wide swath of the Hayman burn area as well as the diversity here; many small ponderosa pines, mountain mahogany and a variety of low-lying forbs and grasses growing among the few blackened standing dead trees that still remain on the landscape.
Kroening pointed out the contrast between the landscape here and an older forest with a thick upper canopy.
“Most old-growth forest is pretty homogenous and covered with needle litter and pine duff,” Kroening said. “There’s not much growing because the canopy is so thick. The sunlight never reaches the ground.”
He pointed out that fire has historically been a regular occurring event on the Colorado landscape and that many of the native plants and animals benefit from and even rely on occasional fire. For example, species of pine trees produce fire-resistant cones designed to protect enclosed seeds during a fire and the actual seeds of many plants need fire to germinate.
“If a fire burns too hot, it can make soil hydrophobic and create flooding issues,” Kroening said. “But a low-heat and slow-moving fire, the kind they aim for with prescribed burns, clears out old growth and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, which allows new plants to grow.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s area offices receive many calls from citizens concerned about how wildlife are affected by wildfires. Kroening said that, for the most part, wildlife are well-adapted to dealing with fire.
During the Hayman fire, and subsequent fires like Waldo Canyon in 2012 and the Black Forest in 2013, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers observed that elk and deer tended to stay relatively close and feed on new grasses and forbs that spring up in a burn area.
But until this past summer, Colorado Parks and Wildlife only had anecdotal evidence of wildlife movements during fires. It seemed counterintuitive that big game animals didn’t bolt at the first sign of fire.
But thanks to a well-timed research project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists, we now have quantitative data about how animals like elk deal with the fire in real-time. What turned out to be a ground-breaking study underway during the Cameron Peak fire has changed the conventional wisdom of wildlife movements during fires.
By pure coincidence, Colorado Parks and Wildlife had collared 30 elk for a study fortuitously occurring in the Poudre Canyon and Red Feather Lakes elk when the Cameron Peak Wildfire hit. Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Angelique Curtis used data from those elk to map their movements as the fire approached and passed their home habitat.
“The elk stayed on the perimeter, but the fire never moved them off their main location,” Curtis said. “They didn’t run 50 miles in one direction or another. They stayed even though the fire was close.”
Not only did they hang around the burn area, some actually crossed into the active fire zone.
Curtis said the data showed the elk moving across the fire lines to reach islands of unburned habitat within the perimeter where they knew they’d be safe.
“From there,” she said, “they just continued on to their regular summer range.”
The study showed that elk were moving in and around the burn area during an active wildfire, finding suitable food and habitat. Clearly they understood how to keep out of harm’s way.
By and large, that was the case with most of the large wildfires that occurred this summer. A few individual animals were caught in the East Troublesome Fire because it spread so rapidly.
But the good news for big game hunters and wildlife watchers alike is that these animals largely survived and will remain in their home territories, over the long haul, and should do fine.
The real issue will be the watersheds.
When fires burn too hot, the soil can become hydrophobic, meaning water can’t get into the soil and help plant life start to take root and prevent erosion. It causes the kinds of flooding Coloradans have become accustomed to seeing in the years following wildfires.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Senior Aquatic Biologist Jeff Spohn said that although big game animals fared well, the South Platte watershed saw detrimental effects and fish kills in the area for years after the Hayman Fire.
“It’ll come down to how intense the burn was in a specific drainage and where the moisture hits,” Spohn said. “You get these valleys and watersheds that have burned, and then have a rain or snow event. That moisture filters down to a drainage which is a river system and it brings all of that ash and debris into the system. And that impacts aquatic wildlife.”
Spohn said Colorado Parks and Wildlife has had some initial reports of fish loss from the East Troublesome Fire and he predicted “there likely will be other impacts that have already occurred or will in the future that we have yet to document, not only related to this fire but also to the others that occurred in the northwest portion of the state.”
Strategic reseeding in burn areas can mitigate some of the impacts to watersheds in coming years. Use of local seeds, it turns out, can be an important factor in the success of a project.
Located at the Escalante State Wildlife Area west of Delta, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 9,000-square-foot seed warehouse facility will play a critical role in wildlife habitat conservation far into the future.
The warehouse allows Colorado Parks and Wildlife to buy large quantities of seeds when prices are low so they can be stored in the climate-controlled conditions for future use. And using native plants that are suited to Colorado’s landscape and climate is critical for properly restoring areas that have been disturbed by forest fire, resource development, grazing or other activities.
“We’re in the midst of working with the BLM on the Pine Gulch Fire,” said Jim Garner, Colorado Parks and Wildlife terrestrial habitat coordinator and head of the agency’s seed warehouse. “The BLM has identified about 22,000 acres of that fire that they want to put seed on. We’ve identified about 1,500 acres where we’d like a wildlife mix that’s heavy on shrubs and forbs that are preferred by big game.”
The seed warehouse is an example of how Colorado Parks and Wildlife helps after fires come through by repopulating native plants.
“We look for areas with thick pinyon-juniper cover where the fire burned really hot and re-seed those areas,” Garner said. “Those are the areas most prone to weed infestation.”
Garner said this year’s wildfires were so unprecedented that even the large Colorado Parks and Wildlife seed warehouse doesn’t have enough stored seeds as needed to restore all the charred landscape.
“There’s literally not enough seed,” Garner said. “It’s like trying to buy toilet paper in the middle of a pandemic. It’s just not there. The shelves are bare. So my goal is to try to get ahead of that curve. The fires are going to come, but you may have to sit on seed for three to four years, which we can do. We don’t know when fires will happen. I pray 2020 was an exception. But we need to be ready. And the scale we’ve seen this year is just unprecedented. I don’t think you could store enough seed to handle every fire like that.”
So while wildlife will likely be fine, it will be our watersheds and aquatic life that we’ll need to be mindful of in coming years. As the Hayman Fire showed, proactive strategic prescribed burns near watersheds and being strategic about reseeding may be two of the best ways to protect them.
Back outside of Woodland Park, DWM Kroening took me by the U.S. Forest Service’s 16,700-acre Manitou Experimental Forest north of Woodland Park to end our tour. Established in 1936, the Manitou outpost is where researchers study meteorological, ecological and biological questions related to forests.
Kroening pointed to an area where a prescribed burn from a few years back scorched the ponderosa pines, but left the trees standing, while much of the underbrush was burned away, creating what researchers had deemed healthy spacing, allowing for plenty of sunlight to hit the forest floor and support new growth.
With a controlled burn, the soil doesn’t get too hot and create a situation where the soil is hydrophobic. Even better, wildfires tend to stop at areas that have been recently treated with prescribed burns because there is no canopy to burn through.
In fact, a prescribed burn in the fall of 2001, called the Polhemus burn, altered the behavior of the Hayman Fire. Aerial photos by the Forest Service show a distinct boundary between the Polhemus prescribed burn unit and the Hayman Fire.
Even though a controlled or “prescribed” burn can be incredibly effective, it’s not without its risks. The Lower North Fork Fire that killed three people and destroyed 27 homes in Jefferson County in 2013 was a prescribed burn that got out of hand due to unexpected heavy winds.
Kroening said incidents like the Lower North Fork Fire had likely lessened the number of prescribed burns in recent years. Because of this, Kroening said CPW has tended to do habitat mitigation work like cutting out old trees and using special tools like large hydro axes, which resemble a farmer’s combine, where appropriate to thin out old growth and improve habitat.
“That’s how I got my start with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, working on habitat mitigation in a lot of those South Park area state wildlife areas,” Kroening said. “Everything we do is with wildlife in mind, so even if we’re taking out a lot of debris and old-growth, we’re thinking about things like edge habitat, leaving some logs on the landscape for small mammals to use for shelter, and leaving behind a thin enough mulch layer that those grasses and forbs can still grow.”
Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.