Smoke and flames from Colorado's wildfires have ruined thousands of homes for both humans and wildlife. But unlike humans, wildlife that survive the fire are likely to return to better living conditions.
Wildfires are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife, initially killing young animals but also making way for healthier habitats in the long run.
"The short-term effects are 100 percent negative for everything," said Rick Moss, a senior habitat biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife stationed in Drake, near the Bobcat Gulch fire in Northern Colorado. "The long-term (effects) may actually be beneficial, depending on the intensity of the fires."
The hotter a fire gets, the higher the chances are that roots, seeds and fertile soils won't survive the burns.
Fires in the late spring can kill fledging wildlife that have just hatched or been born. Also, the fires are hard on a lot of small animals, such as the chipmunks, ground squirrels, pine squirrels, mice, rabbits, ferrets and reptiles that can't outrun the fire.
"If they live underground, sometimes they can escape" as the fire rolls over, Moss said. "However, if they don┐t actually get burned up, they could die from heat or smoke inhalation just like a human in a building."
No human deaths have occurred from the fires. At least 800 people have been evacuated from their homes. In the High Meadow fire, at least 39 homes in wooded foothills have burned 35 miles southwest of Denver. Ninety miles away at Bobcat Gulch fires, 15 homes have burned and more than 8,100 acres just east of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Wildlife critters and reptiles can find refuge in rocky areas or isolated pockets of the forest that aren┐t aflame. Large mammals, such as bears, deer and elk, and adult critters have escaped the flames, said Dave Clarkson, a Division Area Wildlife Manager in Fort Collins who assisted firefighters this week.
"We may have some ground-nesting fledglings and birds and mammals that may have been consumed," Clarkson said. "But, by and far, most of the animals do well with these things."
For the long-term benefits to flourish, time and rain are both crucial.
Both the Bobcat fire and the 10,000-acre-plus High Meadow fire have burned with intense heat in already dry conditions. The fires could sterilize the vegetation if rains don┐t follow within a matter of days, biologist Moss said.
"If it doesn't rain now, because the ground is already dry, the vegetation won't grow again until next year," he said. "And the right rain. If we get a real hard rain, that will cause a lot of erosion and wash the topsoil away."
Typically, fires benefit an ecosystem because the flames eat-up old brush and leafy litter on the forest floor. Fires stimulate grass growth by fertilizing the soils with minerals from ash and burned plants. The flames also clear-out undergrowth shading from trees and shrubs.
"It recycles the nutrients in the soils, such as nitrogen and other important elements," said Kris Moser, the Division┐s Northeast regional manager. "What we have learned, in working with the U.S. Forest Service, is that Smoky the Bear was really not a good idea in terms of impact on suppressing fires."
The benefits of a wildfire can be seen just south of Durango where 15,000 acres of forest burned in 1994, said Division Wildlife Biologist Scott Wait. Lightening, which is also the suspected cause of the High Meadow fire near Bailey, torched mountain shrub, ponderosa pine and oak brush. Within weeks, bears, mountain lions, deer, elk and birds, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, returned to the charred forest.
Before the Durango fire hit, the 10- to 15-year-old tree growth-rate was nearly stagnant at half-inch to an inch a year. Today, the trees are flourishing at four to five inches of growth a year, Wait said.
"The fire makes for stronger, healthier ponderosa pine, by removing all the duff on the floor and removing competition for water and minerals," Wait said. "The healthiest ponderosa pine forest is one that is exposed to more frequent but light fires."
Habitat biologist Moss said the Bobcat Gulch area is mostly ponderosa.
Despite all the benefits fires provide for wildlife and forest habitat, aquatic wildlife can suffer and even die if soils are cleared of roots. Trout and other aquatic life were killed several years ago in Boulder Creek after a severe fire loosened soils and caused mudslides.
"It took two or three years to wash out the sediment that covered the rocks," Moss said.
The U.S. Forest Service and state officials from different agencies, including the Division of Wildlife and the Colorado State Soil Conservation Board, are already assessing the damage within the South Platte River watershed caused by the High Meadow fire.
To prevent major erosion damage on the North Fork of the South Platte, Assistant State Conservationist Stuart Simpson is preparing an Emergency Watershed Protection Program. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service and is designed to help to provide disaster recovery technical and financial assistance where there are threats of life and property.
Depending on the damage, the plan could call for seeding, sediment basins and other habitat management measures that will hold the soil and keep it from eroding into the North Fork of the South Platte.
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