Best of the West: Improving post-fire restoration — Western Governors’ Association

Aerial view from the south of Hayman Fire June 30, 2002. Road traversing from left to right is U.S. Highway 24. Town of Manitou Springs is in lower part of photo, Colorado Springs to the right. Garden of the Gods park defined by three upright orange rock formations in right center just below smoke line. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Click the link to read the “Best of the West” release on the Western Governors’ Association website. Here’s an excerpt:

When the Hayman Fire sparked in Colorado 20 years ago this week (June 8, 2002), it incinerated 138,000 acres of forest. Though many at the time thought it was an anomaly – burning bigger, faster and hotter than most fire managers thought possible and diminishing the natural vegetation’s ability to regenerate as a result— it turned out to be a harbinger of the region’s future fire regime. The lessons learned from the Hayman Fire, however, have led to systemic changes in forest management and post-fire restoration efforts that have helped many western communities recover from similarly uncharacteristic fires and begin to build more resilient forests.

For starters, the Hayman Fire brought much-needed attention to the effects of post-fire erosion and flooding. “It spurred us to action as we saw not only the effects of the fire, but the post-fire erosion and flooding that were more damaging than the fire itself,” Brian Banks, the South Platte River District Ranger, told the Pikes Peak Courier. That attention has prompted government agencies, utilities and even private companies to dramatically increase resources for post-fire restoration.

The White River National Forest in Colorado was recently allocated over $2 million for restoration work in the Grizzly Creek and Sylvan Fire burn areas. The funds are part of the 2021 Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act, which provided $85 million to the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region to recover and restore national forests, watersheds and communities impacted by 2020 and 2021 wildfires.

Using funds from the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy to confront the wildfire crisis and improve forest resilience, The Umpqua National Forest in Oregon partnered with the National Forest Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 440,000 tree seedlings across the million-acre burn scar left behind by Labor Day fire.

But while money is always good, with so much acreage affected (20,000 acres within the Umpqua National Forest still need to be replated), new tools are needed to make a real impact. After the East Troublesome Fire tore through Colorado in 2021, crews used helicopters to re-seed and mulch 5,000 acres in the Willow Creek Reservoir watershed.

In New Mexico, crews working the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire started post-fire erosion control before the fire had even been fully contained.

In Arizona, a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits and businesses are collaborating to restore the wildfire burn scar left behind by the Bush Fire by rescuing cacti from construction sites and replanting them in affected areas.

At the University of California Riverside, ecologists are collaborating with the US Forest Service to develop strategies for the restoration of chaparral shrublands so that these biodiversity hotspots rebound with native plants after a fire. They’re also tracking the progress of burned conifer forests that were replanted with more drought-tolerant pine species that normally grow at lower, drier elevations.

To help in these replanting efforts, researchers at New Mexico State University’s Forestry Research Center saved precious seeds used to rebuild resilient forests and created models that predict the best locations to plant seedlings after wildfires. Additionally, the state’s Forestry Division and several universities submitted an $80 million proposal to the federal government for a reforestation pipeline that includes seed collection, seed sowing in nurseries and the location.

Of course, some landscapes are so irreparably altered that communities have no other choice than to adapt. “Hayman is one of the many examples we have from the western U.S. of those fires from around 2000 that, really, (the forest) is not coming back,” Camille Stevens-Rumann, the assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute…“But it’s really important to acknowledge that it’s not a lost landscape. There’s still value to grassland or shrubland. And it’s up to us to make sure that that’s still a healthy ecosystem — even if we can’t reforest every part of it.”

After the Caldor Fire destroyed five Sierra-at-Tahoe ski lifts in 2020, “we’re no longer dealing with a pristine forest,” John Rice, the resort general manager, said. “We’ve got a burnt landscape, so how do we utilize the terrain and the natural resources to create a ski product that will be next level for people?” Other wildfire-affected landscapes in California are seeing a ‘gold rush’ of morel mushrooms that have a symbiotic relationship with burned trees. The influx of mushrooms is creating a market for commercial and recreational hunters.

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