Pine Forests & Fires

Fires in the South Platte Area

The Hayman Fire of 2002 was the largest wildfire in Colorado's history. Severe drought and unseasonably dry weather had left the Pike National forest a virtual tinderbox. The human-caused fire ignited on June 8 southwest of the Denver metro area and north of Lake George, eventually burning 137,760 acres and destroying 132 structures before it was controlled on July 18.

Buffalo Creek Fire of 1996 covered over 10 miles of ground in approximately 4.5 hours and burned 11,900 acres over a two-day period. The fire destroyed 12 homes and caused the loss of essential forest cover on the highly erodible granite soils common to much of the South Platte drainage. 

In the months following the fire, a series of heavy thunderstorms caused torrential rains and flooding, which in turn resulted in the deaths of two individuals and greater damage to homes, roads and local water systems. Massive amounts of soil washed into the nearby Strontia Springs Reservoir, a critical part of Denver's water distribution and treatment system. The homes have been rebuilt, but the watershed damage continues to cause serious erosion, requiring water quality cleanup and dredging operations.

 

Erosion after a wildfire Forest fire at night.

Pine Forests - Then and Now

Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa) predominates pine throughout the Colorado Plateau. Ponderosa pine communities are found throughout the Front Range of Colorado at elevations from 5,600 to 9,000 feet. These tall trees with their long needles and prickly cones are the most widely distributed species in the Western United States. 

Ponderosa pine naturally grows in stands of different-age trees. Historically, loggers took out the most valuable large pines, leaving thickets of small pine and fir. Then they went back and cut the big fir and remnant pine. Add to this a century of extensive fire suppression, and the result is a much denser, evenly-aged forest — ripe for the type of catastrophic crown fires that have occurred recently.

 

Historical photo Dense forest

Historical density - 1896

Current density with suppression

Left to nature's own devices, a forest goes through periodic cycles of fire and regeneration. In ponderosa pine forests, fire reduces competition from too many small trees, keeps insects in check, and exposes the soil so seeds of new trees can germinate. Suppressing all fires changes the mix and density of the forests. Because natural fires are frequent in ponderosa forests - occurring every two to 25 years compared with 100 to 300 years in the lodgepole pine forests of the northern Rockies — fire suppression has had a much greater effect in the ponderosa forest.