Colorado’s burning, and with good reason. As we begin to really get into SOS scouting, it’s becoming abundantly apparent that the 35% of normal snowpack that we received this past winter was simply not enough. Areas we visited last year that had promising populations are fried. Flowers are shriveling up on the plants brave enough to attempt reproduction this year, often before there is even a hint of a fruit forming. Yesterday Darnisha and I (the interns) saw 3 deer – two adults and a fawn. We startled them, and they moved slowly away, clearly more concerned about conserving energy than they were about us. Dad stayed a little longer, watching us to make sure we didn’t go after his family, and I was able to see each of his ribs. It’s looking like it’ll be a tough season for everyone, though luckily fewer happy plant populations isn’t the life or death matter for us that it may be for the deer. We’re counting on the local shrubs to provide us with good collections, and after that we’ll be heading into the higher elevations where it hasn’t been quite so hot.
I’m astounded by the number of wildfires that Colorado has already had this year, especially since it’s not even July yet. We started in March, with the Lower North Fork Fire, which burned 25 homes and killed three people. Even coming from Idaho, where I’m used to wildfires, I was completely unprepared for a serious wildfire so early in the season. Now we have somewhere around 9 fires burning across the states, some of them quite serious. The High Park Fire by Fort Collins has burned 257 homes, 87,000 acres, and is now at 65% containment. This past weekend a new fire started just outside of Colorado Springs, and has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people. While the fires themselves have not affected our field work yet, they’ve begun to affect my weekend plans – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a location to go backpacking that is comfortably far from all the wildfires currently burning, not to mention any patches of forest that may burst into flame from a lightning strike or a hot bullet that falls into some dry grass in the next few days.
It’s interesting for me to imagine what Colorado will look like 20 years from now. The high frequency, high intensity fires that the state is experiencing are a combination of a number of factors. Primarily, as is true throughout the West, fires have been unnaturally suppressed for the last hundred years or so. Only recently has fire been accepted as a natural and necessary part of many ecosystems. However, due to this suppression, fuels have been building up for the last hundred years, and now forests tend to burn hotter than they did traditionally. Secondly, pine bark beetles are decimating the pine populations throughout the state. Large swaths of forest are dead. These areas might as well be a forest made of matchsticks, their flammability index is so high. Thirdly, weather patterns are completely out of whack. Thirty-five percent snowpack (35! The year before was a record high snow year), combined with warm temperatures beginning in March, has led to a particularly dry state. The strange weather patterns and pine bark infestations can be blamed pretty neatly on climate change. As it looks unlikely that climate change will be reversing itself any time soon, I suspect that Colorado will be experiencing a lot of these bad fire years in the future.
The biologist in me is thrilled to see the succession that takes place after the burns go through (I’m predicting lots of aspen), but the naturalist is sad to think of so many beautiful forests gone. Whatever happens, the landscape will survive, and Colorado will continue to be beautiful in its own way. For this year, we’ll keep looking for those lucky plant populations that are hardy enough to reproduce, and hope for some good collections!
BLM CO State Office