On Friday, May 13, 2022, we had the unique opportunity to restore a natural process in our forests. For the second time wildland fire managers from US Forest Service (USFS) in partnership with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, City of Aspen, Aspen Fire Protection District and ACES lit a prescribed fire in Hunter Creek Valley. Wildfire, once a common occurrence in the West, has been suppressed by humans for over a century. As we’ve learned the many benefits of fire we’ve begun the important work of restoring fire to our landscapes.
A Brief History of Wildfire in Colorado
Forests across Colorado have evolved with fire. Lightning, a common occurrence during summer monsoons, is a frequent source of fire. Additionally, native people, through cultural burning, used fire extensively for hunting, improving foraging habitat, and maintaining travel corridors among many other uses. Forests evolved and adapted to both natural and human sources of fire to the point that many of our forests require fire. The arrival of European colonists came with extensive fire suppression. Native Americans were forcibly moved to reservations and cultural burning was made illegal in many areas. Lightning ignitions were quickly extinguished by firefighters, and fire, once a common occurrence on the landscape, was largely removed from ecosystems.
Today we have a much better understanding of how important fire is for Colorado’s ecosystems. Fire plays an important role in the life cycle of many species and creates landscape-scale diversity. Tree species including aspen, Gambel oak, and lodgepole pine often germinate or grow from existing roots after a fire, taking advantage of bare soil and high nutrients. Grasslands in many areas are maintained by frequent fires. On a landscape scale, fire is an incredible driver of diversity. Fires don’t burn uniformly, they will be more or less severe depending on many factors including slope, aspect, microclimates, and proximity to water.
Unfortunately, returning fire to our ecosystems is challenging. Many things have changed since the natural fire cycle was interrupted. The climate has become warmer, there are many more people living in Colorado, and in some dry forests, the lack of fire has allowed fuels to accumulate. Prescribed fire helps managers address many of these issues and helps to reintroduce fire to the landscape.
While no wildland fire event is truly controlled, a carefully conducted prescribed fire can mitigate many of the risks posed by a wildfire. Managers can choose when and where to light a fire. Prescribed fires in Colorado often occur in the spring or fall when forests are dry enough to carry fire but not so dry that the fires will be severe. The day of a prescribed fire is carefully selected so the winds will disperse smoke away from populated areas. A lot of thought also goes into identifying which areas are suitable for prescribed fire. Managers look for locations that will benefit from prescribed fire and have natural features that will help to manage the fire. These could be areas with water, high elevations that hold snow later in the spring, or natural breaks in vegetation.
Aerial footage of the Hunter Creek Prescribed Fire in 2022
2022 Hunter Creek Prescribed Fire
The prescribed fire on May 13, 2022, went as planned. Crews from USFS began lighting fires using flares, and drip torches at about 10:30 AM. The initial fires burned as expected and smoke dispersal into the wilderness away from town was good. At 11:30 a helicopter took off to begin lighting the majority of the burn area from the air. The fire burned through much of the day Friday and continued to smolder on Saturday and Sunday. Firefighters monitored the area all weekend to ensure the fire didn’t flare up unexpectedly. Over the summer ACES will be spending time in the burn area to assess the impacts to vegetation and monitor regeneration.
Forest & Climate Program Director
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