Published: June 21, 2013
Thousands of blackened trees, many void of needles, now cover acre-after-acre of the Black Forest fire burn area.
The eerie landscape conjures up other-worldly thoughts as one walks through the charred forest.
Then the wind begins to blow. Those tall, blackened poles begin to sway. Just days after firefighters took control of the blaze, that reached temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees and scoured 14,000 acres, many people wonder when the stands will begin to topple.
According to arborists, state foresters and other experts who deal with hazard trees after wildfires, Black Forest residents and visitors are not in as much danger as one might think when strolling through the vast burn scar.
"Rarely does a ponderosa (pine) blow over," said Kyle Anderson, an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and master gardener in Colorado Springs.
Anderson, who volunteers for the local Colorado State University extension office giving advice via phone and email, said most of Black Forest trees are ponderosas. He explained that the species' thick bark and deep roots will keep even dead, burned out ponderosas standing.
"Usually when fire travels up that trunk, it's just burning layers of bark," Anderson said, noting that ponderosas can have about an inch-and-a-half of bark protecting a cambium layer - the part of the tree that is growing.
Larry Long, the Colorado State Forest Service district forester for Teller and El Paso counties, and the U.S. Forest Service Pikes Peak ranger Al Hahn each echoed Anderson's assessment.
Long said the state has no responsibility to remove hazard trees in the Black Forest burn area but has already been visiting private land to help with tree evaluation.
"Right now what we're telling them is not to make any real firm decisions this year," Long said. "They'll know more by next spring what trees need to go."
The trio of experts said the onus to remove hazard trees from private land lies with landowners.
According to Carol Ekarius the executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), most insurance companies cover hazard tree removal in homeowners policies as part of debris removal costs. She said people who are having trouble getting insurance money after the fire should contact the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs and file a complaint.
Ekarius and CUSP staff and volunteers have worked on tree removal for both the Hayman fire and last year's Waldo Canyon fire. The Hayman blaze burned more than 138,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes in 2002 in Douglas, Jefferson and Teller counties. The Waldo Canyon fire began on June 23, 2012 and ravaged more than 18,000 acres, killed two people and burned 347 homes in western Colorado Springs.
Ekarius said trees removed from those and other wildfire burn areas can be used for firewood, lumber and industries that use tree pulp.
Anderson, who also runs Anderson Tree and Stump Removal in Colorado Springs, said his business has had "dozens" of calls this week from Black Forest landowners as well as El Paso County.
He said the tree service and the county are negotiating to have Anderson and his crews on call to help with tree removal from rights-of-way along roads.
The county's director of operations for transportation Max Kirschbaum said the removal of hazard trees in the 60-foot wide right-of-ways has already begun. He too said most of the burned trees are hardy enough to remain standing for years.
"There are very few trees that are an immediate hazard," Kirschbaum said.
Kirschbaum added that the county is consulting with arborists and other experts to "identify with a little more clarity how many of those trees need to come out."
El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman said that even though most of the burned trees won't fall immediately in Black Forest, landowners could face an even more daunting peril in the form of plummeting property values.
Lowderman's office is analyzing about 2,400 private lots in Black Forest, including the 509 homes that were destroyed in the fire that began June 11. The Assessor said that landowners with trees that died in the fire could see values fall as much as 30 percent. Lots with damaged trees that will survive will lose 15 percent of their value.
"I don't want to overstate the value of the trees," Lowderman said. "But really, if you did't like trees, why else would you move to Black Forest."
The Assessor's Office accounts for value added by mature trees when assessing value for tax purposes.
Multiple landowners who returned to their homes in the burn area this week, told The Gazette on Thursday that they have not yet begun to address the issue of hazard trees.
"I would guess they have more important things to deal with right now," Long said.
Gazette reporter Rich Laden contributed to this report.