The Future of Colorado’s Forests

The Cal-Wood Fire raged close to home

Violet Oliver, Journalist

Wildfire season in 2020 has been tough on Boulder County, with CalWood and others burning through more than 10,000 acres of forest. As the largest fire in county history, CalWood will no doubt leave its mark on the environment for years to come – but what exactly will this impact be? How should Colorado residents move forward?

 

Sometimes the best way to predict the future is to look into the past. 2020 is not the only year that has been hit hard by wildfires; the Black Tiger, Old Stage, Overland, Fourmile, and Cold Springs fires have collectively burned over 16,000 acres, and their unique impacts on the surrounding terrain are still recognizable today.

 

Possibly the biggest environmental impact in the aftermath of forest fires has been an increased likelihood of flash flooding. Think about it: tree roots are excellent at keeping grasses and soil in place. As trees are reduced to charcoal and ashes, these roots cannot hold soil, stones, and other debris in place. If the mountains experience even a light rainfall, this loose dirt is easily removed by water, resulting in a full force flash flood. When driving up Left Hand Canyon, one can see flash flood signs posted at every turnout along the Left Hand Creek. Thankfully, the Cal-Wood fire only barely borders significant streams such as the St. Vrain Creek, but it is important to note that even the smallest of creeks can become raging rivers in the event of a flood. What if a Cal-Wood induced flood does occur? As many might remember from the floods of 2013, the appropriate response can be summarized in three words: seek higher ground. Flash floods, like forest fires, are no laughing matter, and an appropriate response can save lives.

 

Another more immediate threat from the aftermath of wildfires is one that can be detected far less easily. The smoke and ash from forest fires is dangerous enough on its own, but smoke from burned structures can be even more deadly. Buildings, especially old ones, can release cancer-causing chemicals such as asbestos, arsenic, and lead when burning. While these chemicals will disperse around the burn site in due time, it is advisable that people should not linger around burned buildings even days after the dust appears settled. Whether on the ground or in the air, these chemicals remain a threat to human health, and should be treated with caution.

 

Is there hope for regrowth from Boulder County’s singed forests? A University of Colorado study conducted in 2017 poses a grim outlook for the future. Historically, fire sites have shown conifer seedlings to be abundant in formerly devastated areas. Instead, the CU team found that 59% of the surveyed areas showed no conifer regrowth, and 83% had little or no conifer seedlings. Many of the burned acres have since been converted into grasslands and prairies. This trend can mainly be attributed to the growing threat of climate change, but the severity of the fire also appeared to play a role. The researchers hoped that this would serve as a wake-up call for environmentalists, as decreased forest area causes permanent habitat loss for many local species of wildlife. For all kinds of residents, the thought of Colorado’s forests being reduced to ashes is a worrying thought.

 

Will Boulder County’s CalWood fire continue the trends observed from fires in the past? We may not know for years. However, it is important to remember that an excellent team of firefighters, health professionals, naturalists, county officials and more are working to ensure that the future of forests remains strong. With their continued support, the Front Range will likely remain coniferous for years to come.