What to do about a forest filled with blackened trees

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Forest fires are unpredictable. They devastate some areas within their perimeter and leave others unharmed. The heat is occasionally intense enough to completely destroy a tree, but far more frequently, fire burns the tops and branches of trees, singes the trunk and moves on leaving ugly blackened hulks standing, often for decades.

During a June 17 In work session, High Park Fire Recovery Manager Suzanne Bassinger met with the Larimer County Commissioners to discuss how to deal with land devastated by the fire.

“We’re beginning to take a close look at the problem and start exploring alternatives,” Bassinger explained. “At this point we don’t have answers.”

At the meeting, the commissioners directed staff to amend the three-year rebuilding program to specify a clean-up date for burned properties in the High Park Fire area. Bassinger proposed July 30, 2015. Planning staff will bring an amendment to the commissioners.

The issue of what to do with standing blackened trees will likely be included in the mitigation plans. There’s a huge amount of fuel remaining in burned areas and in those that escaped the blaze. Mitigation by removing dead wood and underbrush will occur in hopes of preventing future devastating fires. Pre-fire mitigation includes thinning dense thickets of trees to their historical stands. In cases where mitigation is called for on private land, Bassinger anticipates collaborating with landowners in order to find workable solutions. The issues are complex and will not be solved quickly or easily.

Scott Stewart, owner with his sons, John and Kenneth, of Stewart Land Service, has spent most of his life in the mountains. The family firm works in the high country and in urban areas to care for trees and landscaping. “We’re professional and we’re concerned,” Stewart said. “We’re currently engaged in low-impact fire mitigation on privately owned property in areas surrounding the High Park Fire.”

Much of their work has involved clearing out of branches and underbrush.

“Sometimes we’re pickier than the fire department when it comes to removing flammable debris,” Stewart said.

When a tree needs to be removed, the Stewart sons use a method they devised that preserves the integrity of the land and prevents erosion that may occur when vehicles are part of the equipment used to remove felled trees. The Stewart brothers use a block and tackle and pulley system that allows them to run a cable above, from tree to tree, and haul a tree away attached to a cable so that it never touches the ground. Larger trees are cut into pieces to make the maneuver possible.

When asked about the fate of trees that are blackened but may live for a long time, Stewart explains that bark is fire resistant and some trees do survive fire. He advocates removal of severely damaged trees in order to facilitate faster re-growth. This is more likely to occur on private property where individuals are anxious to renew their land. He can’t say how long blackened trees remain standing, but points out that there are still charred remnants around of fires that took place 90 to 100 years ago when much of the Front Range burned.

Cutting fire-damaged wood is hard on saws and creates charcoal dust that is dangerous to breathe. When a tree is removed, care must be taken to address the issue of roots which rot away and allow erosion to occur. John Stewart is so concerned about getting new growth started that he has been planting wildflower seeds in decimated areas.

Stewart’s newly-planted wildflowers will bloom long before the dark upright reminders of the High Park Fire of 2012 disappear.