Forest regrows after Waldo Canyon fire, but pines take years to mature

June 23, 2013 Updated: June 23, 2013 at 10:10 am

Seen from downtown Colorado Springs or along U.S. 24, the Waldo Canyon burn scar appears a lifeless wasteland, the ground brown, the trees gone or reduced to blackened poles, waiting only for a stiff breeze to send them to the ground.

But take a hike, bicycle ride or drive through some of the few areas open to the public, and a year after the destructive wildfire, there are signs of renewal.

Leading the charge, at least at higher elevations, are the aspens, the opportunistic trees that are often the first to rise out of a Colorado wildfire. Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), said some are thigh high this summer.

CUSP has spent the past decade working to restore the scar of the 2002 Hayman fire and is assisting with efforts in the Waldo Canyon fire. There are similarities, but also key differences, between the two. She didn't know last week if the organization would be asked to get involved in recovery of this month's Black Forest fire.

"I think one of the significant differences between Waldo and Hayman is that (Waldo) is oak brush country. Oak brush actually does come back pretty quickly," Ekarius said.

Especially at lower elevations, generally below 8,500 feet, oak brush "is really coming on great," she said. These forests will recover more quickly than the Hayman burn scar, which was mostly ponderosa pine forests. While many young pines in the Hayman area are a few feet tall, it will take 50 to 75 years for them to be old enough to drop seeds. A similarly slow regrowth is likely in higher elevations of the Waldo burn scar and the heavily burned sections of Black Forest, made up predominantly of ponderosa pines.

The good news in Black Forest is that it lacks steep terrain like the Waldo burn scar, so flash flooding won't be as big a concern.

Burn scars are rated by severity. Post-fire surveys indicated 40 percent of the Waldo area was low/unburned, 40 percent was moderate and 20 percent was high.

In the high severity areas, expect to see nothing but weeds, thistle and grasses sprouting this summer. The aspens are doing well in areas of low to moderate burn severity. If next spring is wet, wildflower displays could be spectacular, as could fall colors of the aspens in the coming years.

Though most of the burn scar remains closed to the public, the area around Rampart Reservoir reopened last month, and it remains the best place to see the effects of the fire on the forest first-hand. The three campgrounds are open, and the trail around the lake is intact, passing through all three levels of burn severity on the south side of the reservoir.

Visitors need to be aware of the threat of falling trees while visiting the burn scar, as well as the potential for flash flooding in steeper terrain. That's why Rampart Range Road remains closed from the reservoir to Colorado Springs, along with the Waldo Canyon, Williams Canyon and Blodgett Peak trails.

Though it won't happen in most of our lifetimes, the pine forests will be green and lush again. Ekarius hopes future land managers embrace the role of fire in an ecosystem rather than extinguish every fire as they have done for century. Had the Rampart Range foothills not been so overgrown, Waldo Canyon might have been a ground fire instead of the devastating crown fire.

"These are fire-adapted ecosystems. We have interfered with fire for over 100 years, and we did it with the very best of intentions, but we didn't understand that fire was Mother Nature's way of taking care of the forest," she said. "Now we have these very dense forests and these very large fires."

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