Coming Back to Life: The Forests Recover After the Colorado Fires

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Will the Colorado wildfires, in the summer of 2012, wreak irreversible damage on the region’s ecosystems?

Fire: it’s a frightening prospect. While a tame, contained campfire is romantic, the idea of untamed fire sweeping into the places where we live is terrifying.

After the fire, people and forests rebuild. Image Credit: eduflog

We’ve grown up fire-safe. As children, we learned that it was a bad idea to play with matches. We’ve grown up knowing about Smokey the Bear, and how important it is to be fire safe in the forest too.

It is true that fire devastates homes and communities. Colorado Springs has certainly experienced that.

But ecologically, fire has its place, and it’s not one of complete destruction.

In fact, in ecosystems, fires initiate a process of growth.

They destroy and they leave a space, a space that is soon filled with new growth.

After the fires, the forest reawakens.

The Waldo Canyon Fire Was The Largest in the State’s History

The Waldo Canyon Fire has been the most destructive in Colorado’s history. The fire started on June 23rd 2012, and it has destroyed 346 homes, claimed two lives, and burned 18,247 acres. At one time, more than 32,000 people in Colorado Springs and its outlying areas had to be evacuated. As of today, KKTV in Colorado has announced that officials believe that the fire is 90% contained, and may be fully contained by Friday, the 6th of July.

The forest will never be the same. But to the forest, change is normal.  Sometimes it’s a very small change. A tree falls, creating a patch of sunlight where new shrubs will grow, bringing diversity to the forest. Sometimes the change is profound. A landslide, flood, or fire wipes away much of the existing ecosystem, and what remains is forever changed. This too is part of the life of a forest. Changes both big and small occur, and the ecosystem moves with them.

In Colorado, The Forests Will Rebuild

After the fire, the aspens grow from the roots, holding the soil together. Image Credit: abg chief

In Colorado Springs, there’s an ecological flip side to the fire. The forests were full of White and Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Aspen trees.  This ecology is adapted to the changes that fire brings. It knows what to do.

After a fire, aspen trees grow. Even if the tree itself has been decimated by fire, this fast-growing tree can easily sprout from the roots that have been left behind. The sunny spaces left behind by the fire give life to the new aspen trees. In turn, the trees’ roots hold the soil in place, and their leaves slow down the rainfall, reducing the danger of flash floods.

With the return of the aspen, comes the revival of the slower-growing Ponderosa Pine. This tree loves the sunshine. Its thick bark can protect the tree from small fires, allowing it to thrive in the more open ecology after a fire moves through. If the tree did not survive, new trees will grow in amongst the baby aspens, rebuilding the local ecology from the ground up.

Life After the Colorado Wildfires

After a fire, new life grows from the old. Small plants grow from the remnants of charred trees. Light-loving plants move into the area. Fires create open spaces where wildflowers and berry bushes can grow. After the Colorado Springs fire, people will return and rebuild, looking for their niche in this changed landscape, and as it has throughout its history, the forest will do the same.

Resources:

KKTV. Waldo Canyon Fire 95 Percent Contained. (2012). Accessed July 6, 2012.

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