Mulch matters most in restoring lands charred by High Park Fire

Victims of the High Park Fire have plenty on their plates but above all they’re being urged to take of huge helping of restoration as quickly as possible.

That was the main message to the perhaps 300 of those who recently packed Cache La Poudre Middle School seeking advice about dealing with torched trees and scorched soils.

The forum further offered inspiration to those already overwhelmed with endless demands following the loss of their homes or incineration of their properties.

“You can do something, I’m sure you’ve felt totally out of control,” said John Fusaro, rangeland management specialist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

He and other professionals explained that there are relatively simple and inexpensive actions residents can take immediately to once again assert control by stabilizing fragile topsoil and beginning to regenerate the forest.

“You are looking at it as an overwhelming task, but you need to prioritize, said Mike Hughes, assistant district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.

High Park is characterized as a “dirty fire,” meaning it burned with varying degrees of intensity, hop-scotching across the terrain. Hughes said some 14,000 acres of the 87,284-acre fire burned intensely. The rest burned with minimal to moderate intensity. Some areas remained unscathed.

“It’s crucial to identify where it did and didn’t burn,” he stressed, concentrating reclamation efforts on those most seriously burned areas on steep slopes most prone to erosion caused by heavy rains that can cause flash flooding.

“The top priority is mulching, “Fusaro added.

Mulching follows seeding — which ideally should occur after erosion-control devices are in place. A range of erosion-control methods can be employed depending on conditions and cost. They are detailed at co.nrcs.usda.gov/I

If construction of erosion-control devices is not immediately possible, Fusaro said owners should look for depressions or other natural features on their property where seeds are most likely to take root and begin the reclamation process.

As an interim measure he recommends planting sterile hybrid grasses. They grow quickly and establish root systems to break up fire-crusted, impermeable hydrophobic soils. They shed rather than absorb water, further contributing to erosion.

“It can take a long time to break that up,” said Fusaro.

Annuals that die after one growing season, Fusaro said the hybrids make way for the return of native grasses, He said hybrid seeds also are considerably less expensive and more likely to survive planting this late in the season.

“It’s sort of like the emergency cavalry coming out to stabilize your land,” he said. “I don’t want to be telling you to drop a lot of money on this.”

The bulk of the estimated $24 million reclamation cost on public lands will be borne by federal, state and local agencies. Some federal and state money may be available to private-property owners.

Wayne Reiger, county executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm service agency, said it appears some property owners will be eligible for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program. Subject to appropriation by Congress, the EFRP provides up to 75 percent of the cost for proven emergency forest restoration practices. Property owners are responsible for the remaining share. The total limit is $50,000 although greater grants may be available with USDA state or federal approval.

Seeded areas should be covered by 2 to 3 inches of certified, weed-free straw mulch. Burned nearby trees also can sometimes be chipped for mulch. Fusaro said property owners can partner to share the costs of mulching.

As far as trees, foresters recommend that property owners wait-and-see for six to eight months before cutting them down other than for aesthetic or safety considerations.

Many still bearing green needles may recover. Blackened trees with no green needles are dead. They can be left standing or felled on-site where they can be used for erosion-control structures or chipped into mulch.

Dead trees that have burned for long periods at the trunk are most unstable and hazardous. They can fall without warning on roads, homes and hikers and should be felled with great caution, preferably by professionals.

Spring offers the greatest potential for successful tree replanting. Summer is the worst.

In choosing species, Hughes said property owners should take into consideration those that thrived there before. He suggested Ponderosa pine, Lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, Rocky Mountain juniper and aspen—which may regenerate on its own given its durable underground root structure.

Hughes said landowners can use seedlings available from the Colorado State Forest nursery on the CSU Foothills Campus, or bare-root trees. “Either way will be fine,” he said.

Rather than replanting in a fixed pattern, Hughes said trees are best planted in protected spots at ground level surrounded by no more than an inch-and a half of mulch.

Fusaro said residents also might want to consider buying flood insurance given the increased risk associated with heavy rains hurtling down denuded slopes.

But most importantly, he encouraged landowners to do the best with what they have and have faith that their efforts are having an effect.

At the Hewlett Gulch fire above Fort Collins in May, for example, he said greenery already is beginning to return.

“All kinds of stuff is already coming up, Fusaro said.

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