It is the height of summer, and I keep hearing the same refrain, "No more fires."
There is no question that this summer has been staggering in terms of the negative impacts of wildfires on people. Nineteen hot shots got trapped and lost their lives in the Yarnell Fire in Arizona. Five hundred and eleven homes were destroyed by the Black Forest Fire north of Colorado Springs. Nearly 110,000 acres have burned near the Continental Divide in the West Fork Complex Fire. However, wildfire is not all bad. It is a natural agent of change, and you can bet on seeing a lot more of it.
Wildfires are the primary source of decomposition in the arid Southwest. Fires are a critical part of recycling the nutrients needed to sustain healthy ecosystems. Many plants and animals have survived for so long with wildfires that they have adapted traits or behaviors that depend on wildfire.
For these extraordinarily fire-adapted ecosystems, such as the ponderosa pine forests, frequent low-intensity fires are the key to maintaining a healthy forest. Modifying the forest fuels to a historically more natural state and creating safe homes with defensible space are necessary to return a natural fire cycle to our ponderosa pine forests.
Other forests, such as the piñon and juniper forest ecosystems, have adapted in a different way to fires. They burn completely out and leave room for a longer-than-our-lifetimes succession of grasses, forbs, flowers, shrubs and eventually trees again. This allows different kinds of animals to spread into burned areas and thrive over time.
The nitrogen and phosphorous put into the soil by wildfires makes for nutrient-rich grasses and shrubs, which attract grazers back into the area. Deer quickly started enjoying the freshly sprouted plants on Menefee Mountain. The elk population is strong in the grassy areas that have filled in the piñon and juniper stands that burned over a decade ago at Mesa Verde National Park. Fire is already returning to the Missionary Ridge burn area.
There are natural fires, accidental human-caused fires and rare cases of arson, and intentional management fires set by land management agencies. Unfortunately, the natural fire cycle was so disrupted for a century, that today many of these naturally ignited fires are burning extremely intensely and taking out entire stands of forests that had been allowed to grow too dense.
There is at least 10 times as much forest fuel on the ground and in the canopy around the state as there was in the mid-1800s. Combined with a warming and drying trend in Southwest Colorado, frequent and devastating fires can be expected.
Because we cannot say "no more fires" anymore, let's each do our part to manage the build-up of forest fuels and reduce devastating losses of human life and property by making our homes safe. Eventually and with your help, fires can become a natural part of our landscape again.
Rebecca Samulski is wildfire prevention and education specialist for the Montezuma County Fire Chiefs Association and Montezuma Chapter coordinator for FireWise of Southwest Colorado.