A plague of fires

Forests across the county are ready for fires, which are needed

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The mid-morning air was heavy with mist in an area of Routt National Forest tucked between the steep and heavily wooded Coulton Creek and Hinman drainages.

Recent rains had dampened the black dirt, and the sun hid behind a frothy layer of clouds.

Stretching away from a ridge were acres and acres of forest that now look barren. Wildfires ripped through this area two years ago, burning 31,000 acres and leaving skeletons of trees standing straight, limbless and black.

The area, some would say, looks nothing short of ugly. Or, at least, it does not look the way a national forest should.

But as Kent Foster hiked up the ridge, it became obvious that the forest was still there -- it was just missing the big trees.

Foster, who is the central zone fire management officer for the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit, stopped a few steps off the road and pointed to one tiny twig of a tree heaving its dark green needles up out of the dirt.

"Look at that baby lodgepole (pine)," Foster said. "That has not been planted."

As he continued to walk, he pointed out one tiny tree after another; lodgepole pine were scattered across the entire ridge.

Young aspen trees, with their pencil-thin trunks and flutter of

leaves, also were spaced throughout the black dirt. And there were bountiful wildflowers -- red Indian paintbrush, blue lupine, yellow sunflowers.

Two years after fires hot enough to crack granite gobbled up almost everything in site, the forest was coming back.

Seeing the signs of life, Foster said, made one thought go through his head -- "Phew."

"Naw," he said, laughing. "I knew it would come back. It's doing what it's supposed to do."

Looking at the rebirth happening at the site of the Hinman Fire, it is reassuring that forests come back after they burn. What's startling is that forests across the county are ripe and ready for fires.

When do fires come?

When Routt County residents step out of their homes and look at surrounding trees, much of what they see is a result of fires, which were widespread across Western Colorado in the mid- and late-1800s.

"I confirm that every day walking around the woods," said Mark Cahur, fuels specialist for the Routt National Forest. Every chunk of ground that Cahur steps on has an old stump or charred piece that indicates the area burned 150 years ago.

From that observation comes one conclusion: "It's going to burn again," Cahur said.

"A lot of the forest in the area is going to turn over in the next half century. We're going to have a lot of dead trees on the landscape," he said.

Fire ecologists judge when forests are due for a burn based on the type of trees or plants that are growing, Cahur said.

For example, the shrubby chaparral of Southern California historically has burned every 20 to 30 years, Cahur said. The fires are hot and intense and leave space and fertile ground for the whole area to start over again.

But the historical fire pattern in evergreen forests at higher altitudes -- such as Routt County's spruce and lodgepole stands -- is to grow for 200 to 300 years, then burn when trees are more susceptible to fire. In such circumstances, it's not uncommon to burn tens of thousands of acres at once, Cahur said.

Forests of sagebrush, oak brush and aspen fall somewhere between those two categories, historically getting hit with fires about every 50 to 100 years.

By the time forests reach their fire points, the trees and shrubs have matured and don't grow as vigorously, and so are more susceptible to fires.

Routt County's large-tree evergreen forests are due for a fire as it has been about 150 years since the last big fires, Cahur said. In shrubby areas, where fires have been suppressed for the past century, a burn is long overdue.

Fires and beetles

In addition to the age of the county's forests, serious drought in the past few years and beetle infestations that are nearing epidemic levels make forests that are even more susceptible to fire.

Drought weakens trees, while beetles kill them, creating acres of deadwood that is primed to burn when lightning strikes.

There is some debate as to whether beetles come first and then fires. Don Despain, an ecologist with the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center who also worked in Yellowstone National Park for 25 years, said he thinks fires burn equally well with or without the fuel of beetle-killed trees.

"The way I look at it, is fire is above all that," Despain said. "Fires burn when (there's) fire weather. ... It doesn't matter if the beetles have been there or not, they'll still burn."

Many forest and fire ecologists disagree, saying there is some connection between fire and acres of dead and dying trees.

Routt County forests have two beetle populations at epidemic levels: the mountain pine beetle, which kills lodgepole pine trees, and the spruce beetle, which kills spruce trees. Both infestations are predicted to leave hundreds of thousands of acres of dead trees.

The fires that devastated Yellowstone National Park in 1988 came after a few decades of beetle infestations. Mountain pine beetles began infesting trees in the late 1960s and again in the mid-1970s, until the population collapsed in the early 1980s, Despain said.

The fires of 1988 burned 790,000 acres inside the park's perimeter, with about 2 million acres burned, Despain said.

Although Despain said he doesn't think the beetles paved the way for fires, others find a striking link between the two.

For Foster, who was part of the 20-person Yampa Valley crew that was assigned to the Yellowstone blaze in the late fall after the fires, Routt County's situation is so similar that "it's spooky."

Here, there is talk of 10 years of beetle infestations, increased fuels and then fires -- just like what happened in Yellowstone, he said.

If the county falls into a similar pattern and sees beetles followed by fires, lives and homes could be in danger while the fires are raging, followed by years of barren, blackened hillsides.

But the forest would return relatively quickly.

Foster visited Yellowstone again recently and was astonished by what he saw. Skeletons of trees are still visible but are being swallowed up by lodgepole pine 15 to 20 feet tall and so dense that it's hard to walk between them.

"We do see Mother Nature regenerating herself," Foster said.

Forest regrowth

Fire is not just something forests tolerate -- it's something they need, experts say. Forests evolved with fire and so function best when they can burn, Cahur said.

For instance, most of the pinecones that lodgepole pine trees produce are shut tight, keeping seeds inside, until a fire comes through and the intense heat opens the cones.

When a fire burns a stand of trees, it removes accumulated fuels, cycles nutrients, fertilizes soil, creates vegetation diversity and new habitat for wildlife.

Grasses and other underbrush have a chance to grow, and trees such as aspen and lodgepole pine spring up because both species grow quickly with lots of sunlight.

Once those get tall, they create the shade that other trees and plants, such as fir trees, need to grow.

That is what is happening in the scars of Routt County's 2002 wildfires. That year, when snow melted early and forests dried quickly, lightning sparked several large fires in the county.

The Hinman and Burn Ridge fires started in North Routt, eventually joining and forming the Zirkel Complex that burned 31,000 acres. The Green Creek Fire burned 4,400 acres in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness area 15 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs. And the Lost Lakes and Big Fish fires burned 6,500 acres in the southern part of Routt County and another 13,500 acres outside the county.

The fires had a big effect on the landscape and cost big money to fight. Fighting the Zirkel Complex cost about $13.5 million, and the Green Creek fire cost about $3.2 million. Both were managed with full-blown efforts to suppress the fires, Foster said.

The Lost Lakes Fire, however, was managed for fire use, which means it was allowed to burn within boundaries. Those efforts cost $200,000.

Seeing fire first-hand

For Kathy Hinder, who with her husband, Bill, owns the Elk River Guest Ranch on Seedhouse Road, the Hinman Fire was close to home.

Their ranch was almost evacuated because of the approaching fire. Had the evacuation been ordered, the Hinders would have had two hours to gather 36 horses, their pigs and chickens, and get out.

Now, they take their horseback tours up a ridgeline where visitors can see the fire's aftermath. One hillside is all black, while just past it, an area that did not burn is all green, she said.

They explain to visitors that fire plays a natural role in forest growth, but they also show them how being careless with fire -- for example, by flicking a cigarette out a window -- can have explosive consequences.

"The fires a couple years ago ... were just bound to happen. It needed to happen," Hinder said.

"In our life, it's pretty tragic-seeming, but in the life of the forest, it's pretty standard. It makes them healthy.

"Definitely, you don't want to see (big fires) happen, but on the other hand, that's a part of the process, and you don't want to spend too much time worrying about something you have no control over."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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