The 416 Fire has consumed thousands of acres of treasured forest this week. It is safe to say it has also consumed many of our thoughts since it broke out June 1.
People have responded by opening homes and wallets to assist as much as possible. The response reminds me of what I love about this community and the aspect that drew me back home – the genuineness of the people. Our collective hearts break at the thought of neighbors’ lives and property threatened and the incomparably beautiful San Juan National Forest burning.
We all know that wildfires are a threat in our region. The scars of the Missionary Ridge and Falls Creek fires of 2002 provide constant reminders for anyone who travels through the Animas Valley. When I was a young adult visiting family shortly after these fires, I was crushed. I spent countless hours traveling these landscapes on horseback when I was a teenager. They served as important cornerstones of my home and permanently connected me to this place. To see them charred and to contemplate the destruction of personal property and wildlife habitat broke my heart.
Now that I’ve been back in Durango for a year, I have had the opportunity to traverse both areas multiple times, and I have been reminded of the beauty and the resilience of nature in the aftermath of the fires. Growth is achingly slow from a human perspective, and it will look different than before the fires, but the land is definitely healing over time. Young aspen stands along Haflin Creek Trail provide obvious evidence of that healing, but numerous other signs exist.
Forest management has changed over the past few decades. For nearly a century, the U.S. Forest Service worked to prevent and suppress wildfires, but now the focus is on management. Suffice to say fires are complicated. Wildlife is displaced and land is prone to erosion after fires. On the other hand, some of the greatest biodiversity exists in a forest after a fire has burned through, and burned areas serve as important habitat for plant and animal species. Clearly, fires in populated areas pose significant risk and rightfully instill fear. It is right to mitigate the damage and contain fires as quickly as possible in populated areas to prevent the loss of life and property.
In the days to come, I encourage us all to support the firefighters and those who have been displaced by the 416 Fire to the best of our abilities. After the fire dies and opportunities allow (take heed of any lasting road and trail closures), take time to visit this transformed landscape and look for the beauty wreaked by fire and signs of healing. It will take time, and it will not look like it did before the fire, but it will happen.
Stephanie Weber is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.