Feb 262003
 
Authors: Bryce Chapman

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CSU researchers have begun searching for life and taking actions that may prevent water pollution at the site of the largest and most severe forest fire in Colorado’s history.

The Hayman fire burned 137,760 acres of Park, Jefferson, Douglas and Teller Counties after being started by former forest service worker Terry Barton last June, according to the U.S. Forest Service Department of Agriculture’s Web site.

In early September, shortly after the fire ceased, CSU researchers began their search for microbial life, mainly fungi, an organism essential to stabilizing the environment.

“The regeneration of soil life, mainly fungi, is the first step to soil recovery after a fire,” said Mary Schutter, investigator of the study and soil microbiology assistant professor.

Because of the unprecedented severity of the fire, little is known about how the most severely affected land will recover.

“In preliminary tests the amount of fungi bio-mass is low,” Schutter said. “The worry is that because of the low amount of fungi present, there could be intense competition between the fungi and plants for essential nutrients.”

The longer it takes for the fungi to be reproduced, the more likely erosion, which could lead to water pollution, will occur.

“The faster fungi returns, the faster plants will return that can prevent erosion,” Schutter said. “The plants are key to preventing erosion because the plant roots help stick the soil.”

The vegetation that was burned in the fire has created a waxy layer over the ground that does not allow water absorption, said Troy Bauder, a water expert for CSU Cooperative Extension.

“Because the ground is not able to soak up water very efficiently, water begins to run on the surface and eventually erodes the soil,” said Greg Butters, a soil hydrologist associate professor.

The water also picks up ashes from the ground, which causes water pollution, Bauder said.

Bauder is now testing a type of anti-erosion tactic on the burnt soil that has been shown to significantly eliminate erosion on farming soil. The polyacrylamides help the soil bind to larger soil particles that are too large to be carried off by runoff, he said.

The projects are being funded by a $40,000 grant given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The researchers will continue their trips to the site every three or four months for the next two years to monitor the environment’s rehabilitation.

Cutline for graphic: The Hayman fire’s unprecedented burn intensity killed most living organisms including microbial life-the primary organism essential to the stabilization of the burnt environment.

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