A drainage trench
SOUTH FORK -- It has been more than 10 years since the 9,346-acre fire near the Million Reservoir in the Rio Grande National Forest close to South Fork started on June 19, 2002.
A tour of parts of the fire area was given Saturday, June 23, by National Public Lands Information Officer Mike Blakeman, and showed that much has changed since then.
A few factors have not completely changed, and a timeline of 60 to 300 years was offered for the event to disappear.
Natural regeneration and reseeding operations are bringing back stands of aspen trees in areas that once were combinations of Douglas fir and aspen. Where the fire was not severe enough to completely destroy aspen roots, the surviving buds have grown into new standing aspens. Where tree roots did not withstand flames, areas once forested have become grasslands.
Blakeman said during a tour of the area four years ago that fallen trees still on the ground result in "Safety concerns for all visitors to the fire area, including hikers, horseback riders and ATV users."
This time he gave a fresh bit of advice: "Don't come out here on windy days," because long-ago burnt trees can be weak enough now to blow down.
Blakeman and about 20 persons took the tour, beginning shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday at the South Fork Silver Thread Visitor Center.
He was assisted in his talk at three stops by Rio Grande National Forest Wildlife Biologist Dale Gomez , who offered key points in how animal life here has changed, with the fire damage and new growth bringing in added numbers of "early successional" species such as birds that like younger trees.
Sanchez also noted that the area has improved for hunting, as more deer and elk populate in new plant growth.
The three stops were made, first by a short hike up to the Million Reservoir, where it was explained that part of more than $1 million in regeneration funds were used to fortify the dam that helps create the four-acre body of water.
Blakeman explained the creation of "check dams" nearby installed in the first two years after the fire to prevent sediments from flowing into the reservoir.
Soil stabilization is complete, and is especially important in the first five years after the fire. A thunderstorm that dropped one and a quarter-inches of rain on Aug. 4, 2002, put a halt to what turned out to be a little bit of an early celebration of the quenching of the fire, by causing the check dam creation, dam reinforcement and obtaining as much funds as possible for that restoration of vital importance, he told that tour participants.
Rather than the "Million Fire" name relating to the cost of the event, as some have thought, the fire could have easily been renamed the $11 million fire, Blakeman explained, because that figure was much closer to the actual cost.
The name of the fire related to its having started near the Million Reservoir, which is named after a man who had lived and fought fires in the South Fork - Del Norte area for a number of years.
Many will remember that a complete evacuation of South Fork for a time was forced by the fire.
The next two stops were at the Beaver Mountain Trailhead, with another short hike, a good bit of it uphill, to see areas that still show results of the burning and the stages of recovery. The Douglas firs or conifers have not returned to any great extent, because the first years after such a severe fire leave at first a gray, environment of waxes and resins unfriendly to their abrupt return, without shade. The "sun-loving aspens" tend to be the first to return for tree growth. On this hike, one could certainly observe many fallen burnt logs, as well as trees that, although burnt, had only been singed on the outside of the bark.
On some growth, the damage was on only one side of the tree, and not even all the way up to the top of the trunk.
It was explained that, in these situations, the fire direction had been uphill, apparently limiting the damage to some, but certainly not all, of the trees. Still, dozens and dozens, possibly hundreds, of logs were spread out over the hillside.
The last stop was a few miles up the dirt -gravel road off of U.S. Highway 160 at the east edge of South Fork, near the turnoff for Lost Lake on National Forest Service Road 350.
Here, white cones to assist in transfer of trees to replant were scattered for a good distance up and down the road. There was still evident fire damage, but there also is regrowth of a lot of grass, along with young aspens. Timber sales of damaged trees have not taken place since 2006, but continued efforts to restore the areas have been made up until recently.
A dismal reality of the tour day was the vast smoky haze brought into the area by fires nearby, although not directly in the San Luis Valley.
Blakeman noted the haze was likely caused by four fires, including the still-burning Little Sand Fire near Pagosa Springs, "18,400 acres" in size; a Mancos, Colo.,fire that started Friday, June 22, and fires in the Piedra area, near the Williams and Vallecito reservoirs.
To end the tour, Blakeman summarized, "There has been a great regeneration process," but cautioned, "Disturbances happen here," citing human-caused fires as far back as in the 1890's, for example, near Creede in the Bachelor area.
For the complete article see the 06-28-2012 issue.
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