After the fire |

After the fire

Area blazes have been beneficial, ecologist says

Josh Nichols

The 2,449-acre Green Creek wildfire near Steamboat Springs is 75 percent contained.

But, according to the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center, had there not been homes in the area of the fire, it would have been allowed to burn more.

At a meeting in Oak Creek last week, the incident commander of the Interagency Fire Use Management Team showed slides of dead trees stacked on the forest floor where the Green Creek fired had burned.

“These conditions are extremely difficult and dangerous for firefighters,” according to the dispatch center. “If this fire had not been near people’s homes, it would have been allowed to burn more of these dead trees to make way for new growth. This is the natural role of fire in the ecosystem.”

Charley Martin, fire ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management, said at first assessment all of the fires in Northwest Colorado have been good for the ecosystem this year.

These include the PiRidge Fire near Meeker, the Bear Fire at Dinosaur National Monument and the several fires that burned near Steamboat Springs.

The idea that fires can be beneficial came about in the early 1970s, Martin said.

“That is when they started allowing fires to follow their natural path because, in most instances, it’s a benefit to the resources,” he said.

At about that time, a study was done in a thick sequoia tree forest.

Scientists found that underneath the old, tall and thick sequoias, there were several different plants growing, but no young sequoias.

New sequoias were not getting a chance to grow, Martin said.

“They figured it was because the forest had not burned for a long time,” he said.

Which is why now it is not the job of firefighters to go in and immediately extinguish fires burning in many areas.

Instead, they play a role of controller, Martin said.

“There has to be some kind of management of the incident,” he said. “We need to watch where it’s going to go and what impact it’s going to have.”

In situations like many of the fires burning near Steamboat Springs, the firefighters have one priority, Martin said.

“The concern is always to protect structures or any lands where there is not a similar outlook on burning,” he said.

Areas where there often is not a similar outlook on wildfires is private land, or land where plant life is still young, he said.

“We don’t want fires in some areas because we want it to regenerate,” he said.

But most of the areas the fires went through near Steamboat Springs were full of logs and debris that had accumulated for quite a few years, Martin said.

Management after a fire is also important, Martin said.

Often “cheat grass” wants to sprout up in an area that has just burned.

It doesn’t have the protein that many plants do and is more prone to burning, which might cause a fire in the area before it has had an opportunity to properly regenerate.

In managing a fire, the temperature at which it burns is always monitored, Martin said.

If the fire burns too intensely it can hurt the soil, which will prevent it from regenerating plant life.

“As far as the ecosystem goes, I don’t think any of the fires burned with such intensity that it affected the soil,” he said. “I expect the soil to rebound nicely.”

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