Pine Gulch, Grizzly Creek, Cameron Peak, Williams Fork, and more. Colorado is currently having a record-breaking wildfire season.
With the latest forest fires raging across this state and others, we wanted to talk about how ranch owners and future ranch investors mitigate fires, as well as discuss the benefits of wildfire, and what land management looks like afterward.
Fire as a Land Management Tool
Fire is an integral and necessary tool in western ecosystems that is responsible for the makeup of many of our forests and native rangelands in the West. It is a powerful and often misunderstood force of nature that has been stigmatized as “bad” or “devastating” because of Smokey the Bear Syndrome, development, and changing habits and traditions. But in fact, the only scary part is when we don’t manage and plan for it.
Fire is not always the boogie man people make it out to be and should be recognized as a management tool that minimizes risk and benefits forests, wildlife, grazing, and overall plant communities. Ecological imbalance occurs when fire is eliminated from the landscapes and should be considered as a management tool when done properly and at the right time.
Unfortunately, we are seeing this ecological imbalance right now. Many forests that historically burn every 150 years have now gone over 600 years in some cases without a fire. This allows an incredible amount of fuel load for these starving fires, which makes them harder to govern and stop.
Let’s take a look at what private landowners do to manage fire risk on their properties.
Ways to Mitigate Forest Fires
It is crucial to manage the dead timber and slash on your property, especially in areas with substantial beetle kill, as this is just fuel for any fire. The NRCS EQIP gives out grants for timber management.
Fire Suppression Through Aspen Regeneration
Aspen forests are nature’s buffer amongst western forests that minimize the impacts of wildfires. Ironically enough, most aspen forests are and were developed from wildfires (as fire stimulates regeneration). Management and care of aspen trees on western ranches are becoming an essential part of forest management to control what impacts fire will have when one does ignite.
According to the US Forest Service:
“Aspen forest does not readily burn. Aspen trees have moist green leaves and thick twigs that do not burn easily, unlike conifers, which have dry needles and twigs. Crown fires running through coniferous forest drop to the ground when they come to an aspen stand and may even extinguish after burning into the aspen only a few yards. Fires sometimes bypass stands of aspen enclosed within coniferous forest.
Although aspen forests do not burn readily, aspen trees are extremely sensitive to fire. A fire intense enough to kill the aspen overstory will stimulate abundant suckering, though some suckers arise after any fire. As many as 50,000 to 100,000 suckers can sprout and grow on a single acre after a fire.”
Western Landowners Alliance recently put together a report entitled Aspen Next Generation that discusses how the next generation of aspen in the southern Rockies will be influenced by land-use decisions, including harvesting, fire policy and management, and browsing by livestock and wildlife. Be sure to check it out for some further insights on using aspen for fire suppression and regeneration from landowners, agency personnel, and scientists.
The Silver Lining After the Fire
While we cannot understate the major impact fires have on ranchers, families, and wildlife, keep in mind that many ecosystems depend on periodic fire. It’s a natural process that promotes plant and wildlife diversity and burns away accumulations of live and dead plant material (leaves, branches, and trees). Additional benefits include:
Improved Soil Health
Typically, wildfires burn off the dead organic matter on the soil’s surface. It usually takes years for the vegetation on the top levels of soil to decay, but fires accelerate this process and further enrich the soil.
In the Rocky Mountain region alone, several plant species rely on wildfire to re-seed or enhance growth, including:
- Lodgepole Pine,
- Ponderosa Pine,
- And as mentioned above, Aspen.
Forest clearing at Gore Canyon Ranch
Management Tips for Ranchers
It is essential to take advantage of the enriched soil after a fire and plant fast-growing nitrogen-fixing vegetation and adapted native grasses. Ranchers should also consider deferring grazing activities for at least one year to allow new growth to establish itself.
How You Can Help
Lastly, if you are looking for another avenue to help those being affected by the fires, donate to local fire departments fighting those blazes today.
For more information on current fires, check out this national incident reporting system.