The summer of 2013 was a memorable time in southwest Colorado. In early June, a lightning strike in the San Juan National Forest began a series of fires that crossed the Continental Divide and grew to burn over 100,000 acres. The West Fork Fire Complex moved into the Rio Grande National Forest and threatened two towns and the headwaters and reservoirs of the Rio Grande River. Fortunately, no lives were lost and only one small pump house was destroyed.
The fire took place in a high-elevation spruce-fir forest that had suffered significant beetle damage in previous years. In some areas, over 90 percent mortality existed before the fire. During the fire, rumors began to spread that the Forest Service could have put the fire out when it was still small, but chose not to. Many people were also under the false impression that the beetle-killed trees, devoid of needles, were much more flammable than the facts would suggest. In short, a lot of misinformation circulated within the communities in the area.
Two years later, the social, economic and environmental impacts of that fire are still a concern to stakeholders who are working to improve watershed, forest and community health in the region. This prompted the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP) to initiate a tour of the burn area for the public to see and learn about the fire, what the situation is today and what is planned for the future.
SJHFHP contacted the district rangers and state foresters on both sides of the Divide, the scientific community in western Colorado and the Front Range, and the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team. It didn’t take long for everyone to reach out to others and propel this cooperative effort forward. A series of speakers was lined up for a Friday evening presentation and barbeque to be held at Wolf Creek Ski Area near the top of the pass that separates the San Juan and Rio Grande watersheds. The ski area donated food, and two local breweries brought their latest micro-brews. Nearly 100 people showed up that evening. In this sparsely populated area of the state, we considered this an amazing turnout. A diverse speaker lineup of local legislators, community activists and business people, scientists and foresters explained the complex issues that make up the historical, current and future aspects of this wildfire event.
The next day, everyone met back at the ski area for a tour into the burn area. The Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) and Southern Rockies Fire Science Network donated vans to haul more than 70 people over Rio Grande National Forest roads where we were able to stop and view areas that showed the effects of the fire on the landscape and watershed. Representatives of Colorado Parks and Wildlife joined the speakers to discuss the animal situation after the fire. This critical habitat area is where lynx were reintroduced to Colorado about 15 years ago. It is also home to moose and some of the largest elk herds in the state. Participants were pleased to see and hear that the browse is lush and the animals are faring well. Efforts have been made to monitor rainfall and stream flows. The part that many had trouble comprehending was how long it will take for a high-altitude spruce/fir forest to return to maturity. With changes in climate and rainfall, it may never look as it did a few years ago.
The West Fork Tour was quite successful. The individuals, groups and agencies truly cooperated to bring all the pieces together. Afterwards, both presenters and the public participants stated that they had learned a lot. Organizers concluded that the tour helped paint a more realistic picture about the fire and went a long way toward fostering better communication between the stakeholders in the communities and the agencies on both sides of the Divide. It is hoped that these connections will continue to grow as the forest regrows, hopefully at a little faster rate.
Special thanks to the event organizers and sponsors:
- San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP)
- Mountain Studies Institute (MSI)
- Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT)
- FireWise of Southwest Colorado
- Southern Rockies Fire Science Network
- Colorado Forest Restoration Institute (CFRI)
- Del Norte Ranger District, Rio Grande National Forest
- Pagosa Ranger District, San Juan National Forest
- Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS)
- Wolf Creek Ski Area
- Three Barrel Brewing Company
- Riff-Raff Brewing Company
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