Dozens of Black Forest residents affected by the 2013 blaze lined up outside a local fire station on Saturday, ready to make an investment that likely won't pay off for decades: planting seedlings.
About 8,500 of the fledgling trees were distributed at Black Forest Together's annual giveaway, which organizers estimate has provided roughly 40,000 seedlings to burn area residents in the four years since the fire scorched more than 14,000 acres.
Kenneth Clark, the organization's forest director, said the fledgling ponderosa pine, white fir, honey locust and chokecherry doled out at the event give hope to residents whose burnt properties are covered with charred trees and other blackened vestiges of the fire.
"It's pretty hard to look at all of that on a daily basis," Clark said. "Any time you get some green back in there, get some vegetation growing, it really brings up spirits."
But patience is key. Each seedling, now only about a foot tall, will need about a gallon of water a week for the next three to five years as its root system grows large enough to draw enough nutrients to the top of the tree, said Mike Till, assistant district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service's Woodland Park District, which includes El Paso County. Once the young trees are established, they will grow six inches each year, maybe a foot - "if they're lucky," Till said.
The time it takes for a forest to regrow following a fire varies, often depending on the area of the land burnt, said Dave Root, another assistant forester for the district. In nature, the wind can only carry seeds from healthy trees so far, so planting seedlings can speed an ecological process that can take more than a century.
"If you are in a big open burn spot with no other trees around, it's going to be years and years before the trees seed in from the edges," Root said. "Planting them is just getting trees established that much quicker."
Colorado's short growing season, which is three to four months at most, poses a challenge to planters.
Bonnie Hargrave, who has planted at least 100 seedlings on her 5-acre property since the fire, has struggled to keep them alive.
"You just got to keep trying," Hargrave said after loading several species of seedlings into her SUV. "I can't live ... without the trees."
She misses the shade and protection from the wind the forest provided at her home on Crump Road, just a few blocks from where the fire broke out.
"You don't know what you got until it's gone," she said.
The state Forest Service encourages residents to learn from the past when planting. The Black Forest fire was particularly catastrophic because the ponderosa pines that cover the vast majority of the area were dense and overgrown, Root said.
"Think a hundred years in the future. Plant 15 to 20 feet between trees," he said. "Plan for an open forest that will be fire adapted and healthy and better for generations to come."