Author: Ricki Watkins
It is hard to believe that just a few months ago, smoke choked the air and flames from the second largest fire in Colorado history could be seen from the Colorado State University campus. With many students gone over the summer and the devastation far in the distance, it is easy to forget that about 87,000 acres lie charred just past Horsetooth Reservoir, but beneath the ash of the High Park Fire arises new growth, new research opportunities, and a community committed to rehabilitation and restoration.
Community-grown rehabilitation and restoration
Just as the Fort Collins community came together to fight the High Park Fire, it is coming together again, now in both emergency rehabilitation efforts and long-term restoration planning.
Burning on both private and public lands, including Lory State Park and Roosevelt National Forest, it will require a joint effort from government and community organizations and volunteers to restore such a large burn area.
The group spearheading these efforts is the High Park Restoration Coalition. The coalition had its first public meeting on Aug. 28 to discuss the impacts felt from the fire and the work that needs to be done. The meeting featured representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, City of Fort Collins Utilities and Colorado State University, among others.
â€œIt is time to be thinking beyond just what we have lost, but what we are going to regain and what we are going to restore,â€ said Richard Fox, one of the founders of the coalition.
Those restoration efforts have already begun within the different organizations. Within a week of the fireâ€™s containment, the U.S. Forest Service conducted an interagency Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) assessment on Forest Service land to determine the severity of the fire and the values at risk. Roosevelt National Forest lost over 42,000 acres to the fire; almost half of the High Park Fire burned on Forest Service land.
From the BAER report, a burn emergency was declared due to the high risk of flooding and debris flow, which is hazardous to both infrastructure and the watershed.
The BAER report, focused on emergency rehabilitation efforts, identified the fireâ€™s effects on the Poudre River watershed as a priority concern. With no ground cover to help absorb rainfall, debris and sediment flow into nearby water bodies, compromising water quality.
â€œIn a burned forest, that spongy filter is lost, particularly in areas with moderate to high burn severity,â€ said Carl Chambers, forest hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service. â€œSo surface run-off goes from being a fairly rare process to a fairly dominant process. Fairly small storms will produce surface flow. It can be pretty dramatic too. Flood flows can increase by two to 10 times, soil erosion can increase from 10 to 50 times and debris flow risk increases exponentially.â€
Colorado Parks and Wildlife took immediate action to address this problem, setting up catch basins in the drainages of Lory State Park to prevent debris from entering the watershed. The park, which lost 490 acres to the fire, has already started on aerial reseeding and mulching efforts.
â€œThe definite concern was the watershed, so we were happy that we were able to help out with that because everybody in the community consumes the water â€” we didnâ€™t want that to be impacted,â€ park manager Larry Butterfield said.
The Forest Service is also working to sign on a contractor to do aerial mulching within the National Forest. This mulching will provide the forest floor protection against rain, lowering the probability and severity of surface runoff.
Along with other municipal water providers, Fort Collins Utilities, which uses the Poudre River as a water source, is working to monitor the water quality of the river. A monitoring device has been put upstream of Fort Collins Utilitiesâ€™ river water intake to measure any changes in water clarity before the water reaches the intake.
â€œIt is very important to us to get some mitigation going so that we can help prevent all of these sediment flows so this river can remain protected,â€ said Lisa Voytko, water production manager for Fort Collins Utilities. â€œIt is an important part of the cityâ€™s watershed, and everybodyâ€™s watershed from all aspects.â€
Other rehabilitation efforts are in planning, including weed control and hazard tree removal.
Colorado State is also working to join in restoration efforts. Along with representation at the coalition meeting, Warner College of Natural Resources hosted an all-day symposium on Sept. 10 at the Lory Student Center Theater. Speakers discussed impacts of the fire, perspectives on the fire and action and recovery efforts.
However, private lands, which saw about half of the burn acreage, are in need of resources and money to receive the same types of rehabilitation treatments.
â€œThe Forest Service has money to do work on a lot of the public lands, but the private lands are a partnership between the [Natural Resource Conservation Society] and local sponsors,â€ said Linda Hoffmann, county manager for Larimer County. â€œWe have many local sponsors stepping up and bringing dollars to the table, but the federal government does not have money in order to do the match and to do the [Emergency Watershed Protection] Program.â€
This is why groups like Wildlands Restoration Volunteers (WRV) are working with the coalition to provide resources and assistance to private landowners.
â€œWildlands Restoration Volunteers is sort of the implementation arm of that coalition,â€ said John Giordanengo, the Colorado Northern Regional Director for WRV. â€œSo we have been working with federal and local agencies to understand the needs on the ground, working with local landowners and community groups and planning to basically implement restoration in the highest severity burn areas in the Poudre watershed to basically protect water quality, homes, other infrastructure downstream of these areas where there are landslides, mudslides, etc.â€
The Coalition is working to help restore both private and public lands with emergency response efforts and then with long-term commitments to restoration.
â€œWe understand that this is going to be a long-term effort, that we are going to be here for this community,â€ Fox said. â€œThis is our home, and we are Coloradoans and we donâ€™t take this easily.â€
How can you help?
One of the goals of the High Park Restoration Coalition is to provide a way for people to get involved in volunteer efforts. And what better volunteer force is there than a town full of college students?
â€œBy working together as a coalition we can get a lot more people involved and get them directed in the right place instead of working alone on this,â€ Giordanengo said .
The best way to help is get involved with the coalition, suggests Chambers.
Wildlands Restoration Volunteers (WRV) is working with the coalition to amass a volunteer workforce committed to restoration efforts.
Giordanengo says WRV will get some projects going this fall. To volunteer, visit the WRV website to sign up.
â€œThe different pieces of the puzzle are coming together very quickly here,â€ Giordanengo said. â€œWe are hoping to have signatures with landowners soon that allow us to go on the properties that have indicated â€˜yes, please come do restoration work,â€™ so we can start using some of the data from the BAER report, from CSUâ€™s work, looking at slope severity of burn proximity to roads, threats to water quality, so we can identify the most high priority areas that have a threat to human life and resources, and we are going to treat those areas this fall.â€
Another area in need of help is finding funding for rehabilitation efforts, said Hoffmann. The federal government does not have enough money to match the funds raised locally for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.
â€œYou need to call your friends and family in other states and have them lobby their senators and congressman because our congressional delegation cannot get this done alone,â€ Hoffmann said. â€œWhat you want is a federal appropriation for the EWP â€“ the Emergency Watershed Protection Program â€” administered under NRCS. If they can get money in the federal pot, they can bring three for every one we can raise locally.â€
Burn areas open to public access
One topic brought up at the coalition meeting was the perception tourists and visitors had of the fireâ€™s effects on recreation, which has harmed businesses located in the burn area. Ben Costello, the river manager for Mountain Whitewater Descents, shared the impacts these perceptions had on business.
â€œWith media coverage, obviously we were on every front page all over the country for weeks there and that certainly impacts the perception that tourists and visitors to the area would have,â€ Costello said. â€œWe certainly started to see a drop in visitation to the area, and certainly not just Fort Collins, but Northern Colorado.â€
BothÂ Lory State Park and Roosevelt National Forest have been reopened since the fire, but there are a few closures within Roosevelt National Forest. Greyrock Trail and Hewlett Gulch Trail have been reopened; however, McConnel Trail, the Kruetzer Nature Trail and Young Gulch Trial are closed, as well as some campgrounds and picnic areas. A full list of area closures is available on the Roosevelt National Forest website. Lory State Park if fully open to visitor use.
Finding research opportunities
From the ashes of this fire emerge unique research opportunities. The fire provided a new dimension to a study on mercury levels in the food chain. With the fire, the research group will now be able to look at how fire affects mercury levels.
Fire releases mercury held in the vegetation and soil into the atmosphere, which ultimately reaches water bodies due to rainfall. The mercury then travels through the aquatic food chain, until it reaches humans. The aim of the study is to determine the health risks associated with mercury levels via bioaccumulation, or the accumulation of substances as you climb the food chain.
â€œIn relation to the High Park Fire, this additional piece of the research will hopefully enable researchers in the future to examine potentially how big wildfires can affect aquatic communities and then, ultimately, that could lead to public health issues as well,â€ said Jesse Lepak, a principal investigator in the project.
The project is the product of efforts from CSU, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Water Quality Control Division, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the City of Fort Collins.
Project investigators include Brian Wolff, research associate at CSU, Brett Johnson, professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and Lepak, aquatic research scientist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The team was able to install an automatic precipitation collector in the ground four days before the High Park Fire began. In addition, the team is now taking dry deposition samples and water and sediment collections from Horsetooth Reservoir. Results are pending, and should come within the next couple months.
â€œThe High Park Fire started just a few days after we put in our first deposition collector, so we have a little bit of information before the fire and how mercury deposition might change as a result of that,â€ Lepak said. â€œ(The fire) is an additional piece that we didnâ€™t have before and we are aware that fire can change mercury deposition.â€
The team will also be able to compare fish-sample data collected in 2008 with the fish and invertebrate data that will be collected next year. The project will span over a two-year period.
This project has caught national attention, with the teamâ€™s precipitation collector now a part of the National Atmospheric Deposition Programâ€™s Mercury Deposition Network. The collector is the only one on the Front Range, filling in the gaps of information on mercury levels in the West.
â€œIn places like Colorado and Wyoming, along the Front Range, it is lacking in data so we donâ€™t really understand mercury bioaccumulation processes here,â€ Lepak said. â€œWe are basing our information on whatâ€™s been done in the Midwest and Northeast, and some of those mechanisms are different here in the West, so we are just trying to gain a better understanding of that.â€
Facts of the flame
Fire is a natural phenomenon, and, for many ecosystems, a necessity for continued success.
Some plants are able to grow back after a fire; others need fire for germination, said Monique Rocca, assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.
Fire is normally suppressed along the Front Range, resulting in natural, plant-based fuel accumulation. More fuel on the ground means fires tend to be bigger and more severe, especially when driven by extreme weather conditions.
With the High Park Fire, this fuel has been cleared, but that wonâ€™t prevent fires in the future.
â€œOn one-hand we have cleared out a lot of fuel, so there might not be another fire for a while,â€ Rocca said, â€œBut on the other-hand we create a lot of dead trees and those dead trees could fall over in a few years and become fuel again. I wouldnâ€™t say we have fireproofed our landscape, but we have cleared out some of the heavy fuels that have been sitting out there causing a fire hazard.â€
Rocca also noted the unique way in which the High Park Fire behaved, with 16 percent of the forest left untouched.
â€œThe effects of this fire were very patchy and there are places where trees are completely dead, hill slopes have been completely torched, and that is considered probably not a natural type of fire for those ecosystems,” Rocca said. “But there are places where the trees are still alive and the fire burned through the understory, which is actually much more typical of what we think fire did naturally in ponderosa pine ecosystems, so in those places we might have restored an important ecological process.â€