High Park Fire from Estes Park

The High Park Fire and Wildfire Recovery

High Park Fire from Estes Park
Smoke plume from the first day of the High Park Fire, seen from near Estes Park, Colorado, USA. June 9, 2012.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to the Wool Market in Estes Park. On our way there, taking the scenic route through the mountains, we saw this huge smoke plume to the northwest, but no one seemed to know what was happening.

The following Monday, the Front Range was blanketed in fire haze, all the way down to Denver, and we learned about the High Park Fire, which at 75,537 acres and 45% containment (down from about 60% a couple days ago–hot, dry, gusty weather conditions have made firefighting much harder) is now the second-worst wildfire in recorded Colorado history.

I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how it’s tragic, but it’ll solve the pine beetle problem and forests need fire and the forest will come back healthier. To the first–maybe, although pine beetles will continue being a problem in the future if winters don’t get colder again. To the second, yes, western forests are on the whole fire-adapted.

But the problem with the third is that we’ve practiced fire suppression for so long that between that and the beetle-kill, fuel loads are extremely high, resulting in fires that burn longer and hotter and travel faster. A fire that burns quickly through the undergrowth but doesn’t harm larger trees is one thing. A fire that burns everything to ash…well, up in the mountains of Colorado, where growing seasons are short and dry, a relatively small ponderosa pine can easily be a hundred years old. As dry as things have become, trees grow even more slowly now.

I spent a lot of time in the Cascades of eastern Oregon as a kid, and I saw the results of post-suppression subalpine forest fires after a few decades had passed. The forests weren’t back. There were trees, to be sure, but they were small trees scattered through a dry, non-native-grass-dominated high desert ecosystem, not a forest.

No matter how much mitigation and planting we do, we haven’t found a way to accelerate tree growth significantly.

There will be forests again eventually where the Hayman and High Park Fires have burned, probably–but not on the 20-year timeframe people seem to be imagining. Not even in our lifetimes.


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