This summer we saw wildfires burn across the western United States. While Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and Utah experienced some of the worst wildfires, Colorado was not immune with large fires affecting nearly every part of the state. Due to an unusually long wildfire season, over 2 million acres were burned by western wildfires by mid-September this year.
Society's relationship with wildfires has always been a shaky one. Fires are a part of the natural ecological cycle, as a burn will trigger the ecological process known as succession. When an area has been burned by a wildfire, the bare land allows for plants that normally cannot compete for resources, such as plants that are shade intolerant and require a lot of sunlight, to colonize areas. However, over time those plants get replaced with a new set of slower-growing plants, such as trees and shrubs. Ecological succession caused by wildfires is vital to creating a diverse set of plants in a given area, which consequently allows for a more diverse set of animals, insects, and microbes that take advantage of the different stages of succession. There are even some trees' seed pods that will only explode and disperse seeds when activated by high heat produced from wildfires.
While there is an ecological benefit, there are obvious downsides to wildfires. When a wildfire spreads, it threatens people, homes, livestock, and vital infrastructure. The exposed soil left after a fire is more susceptible to erosive forces, leaving a large amount of sediment in our water. This can smother life in the rivers and contaminate the water we use to drink, irrigate, and recreate. A key task after a wildfire is protecting our source water from contamination.
How are the institutions and organizations working to prepare us for wildfire in the Purgatoire River Watershed? Las Animas County is currently re-working its emergency management plan, which includes steps in preparation, prevention, response, and recovery in case of an emergency. The City of Trinidad in partnership with Stonewall Fire Protection District, Colorado State Forest Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are initiating a fire mitigation project on city-owned land around Monument Lake and North Lake, thinning out the dense forest to reduce the heat and power of any future fires. HOAs are engaging with their own fire mitigation projects as well, working to protect roadways and possible escape routes. The City of Trinidad and Stonewall Fire Protection District, with the assistance of PWP, integrated information on the watershed's key source waters (North Lake and Monument Lake) with federal and state databases. Ensuring that information aligns across local, state, and federal databases will facilitate faster response and recovery from federal and state resources should a fire occur, especially with protecting our source drinking water from excess sedimentation and contamination.
Wildfires are triggered when the right conditions are in place, such as long periods of dry weather and high amounts of available fuel sources like dead trees. Here in the Purgatoire River Watershed, there are many institutions working on strategic fuels mitigation projects and conducting outreach and education to landowners about defensible space, so that when a wildfire occurs, firefighters will have a better chance and more success with protecting people, homes, and critical infrastructure. Managing the forests on your property and providing defensible space around your house are just a couple ways to protect yourself in the case of a wildfire emergency.
For more information on defensible space and forest management, visit the Colorado State Forest Service website at https://csfs.colostate.edu/wildfire-mitigation/.