The impacts of the 416 Fire will be with residents in the north Animas Valley for a while, but nature is resilient and usually the best and quickest healer.
The experience of the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire provided valuable lessons applicable to the challenges now hitting the ecosystem and communities from the 416 burn, several speakers said Thursday evening at a meeting, attended by about 100 people, to examine what comes next in the wake of the fire’s containment.
“We were told the Missionary Ridge Fire was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but we now know that was not the case,” said Julie Korb, a biology professor and forest and fire ecologist at Fort Lewis College.
What Korb termed “the human-fire-climate triangle” will mean residents near the San Juan National Forest can expect more damaging fires in the future.
According to Korb, an increasingly dry climate, more fuels in the forest from past forest management that overly emphasized fire suppression and more recreation make for a fraught combination that will result in more burns like the Missionary Ridge and 416 fires.
“Fire is a natural process for the Western landscape,” she said, “and we have to change our view that it is evil and bad. We have to recognize fire is beneficial if it is the right type of fire, the kind of fire we want.”
Choosing to eliminate all fire in the West is impossible, she said, the best thing to do is accept fire’s natural role in the ecosystem and “manage fire for the type we want.”
Already, natural regrowth of fire-adapted Gambel oak and aspen is occurring in the 416 burn area, similar to the quick, natural revegetation witnessed after the Missionary Ridge Fire, she said.
Also, the patchwork nature of the 416 burn is positive for eventual habitat diversity for wildlife and for a healthy forest, Korb said.
Jim White, Columbine District ranger for the San Juan National Forest, said his agency is still assessing damage in drainages, but eventually, he sees beneficial opportunities emerging in the fire’s wake.
“The fire will create some opportunity,” he said.
Severely burned drainages will open opportunities to restock streams with native cutthroat trout after killing nonnative species.
Hatcheries near Durango, he added, will quickly be able to restock areas that were not burned severely with nonnative brown and rainbow trout to rapidly restore recreational fishing opportunities.
Brian Devine, water and air quality program manager for San Juan Basin Public Health, said abundant data is available about the water quality in the Animas River, much of that thanks to monitoring equipment placed in the river after August 2015’s Gold King Mine spill.
However, similar monitoring of air quality in the region is lacking. Only the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, he said, had equipment in place to provide long-term air quality data.
“Air quality data for the region is a bit of a black hole,” he said.
The agency is putting together a proposal to obtain more air-quality monitoring equipment for the La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties he said.
Mark Stiles, retired San Juan National Forest supervisor, said topography, wildlife, ecosystem reaction to weather and human patterns of forest use will all adapt to the new fire-burned landscape.
“A favored trail may no longer be usable, but other opportunities will emerge,” he said.
Migration patterns for deer, Stiles said, could change as more grasslands could keep them in the area longer, delaying or even eliminating migrations.
New streams may emerge.
The Missionary Ridge Fire taught foresters that huge efforts at rehabilitation and revegetation did not work as well as what nature itself provided.
“Some efforts had limited success, but in general, we saw insufficient results,” he said. “We saw more natural recovery than expected. What we learned from the Missionary Ridge Fire is that there is very little reason for heavy rehabilitation efforts. You already have a diverse seed source in the burn area, and I think that is what you are seeing in the 416 Fire burn area.”