One year after the 416 Fire, Hermosa Creek is showing early signs of bouncing back.
“The area is recovering pretty well,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “There will be changes from what it was before, but that’s part of the system.”
The 416 Fire last summer ripped through more than 54,000 acres of mostly national forest lands in the Hermosa Creek watershed, north of Durango.
In doing so, the fire drastically altered the dense forested landscape of old-growth pine trees and had devastating impacts on water quality in Hermosa Creek, traditionally one of the cleanest tributaries to the Animas River.
Fortunately, the 416 Fire didn’t burn at as high of an intensity as originally believed – only about 3% burned at high severity. Instead, the vast majority of the burn scar flared up in a low-to-moderate mosaic of burn severity, which experts say lends to better forest regeneration.
“I don’t want to say the fire was good for the landscape and the ecosystem,” said Michael Remke, a research associate with Mountain Studies Institute. “But it wasn’t bad, either. It does carry some ecological benefit.”
Mountain Studies Institute and Fort Lewis College set up several research plots in low, moderate and high burn-severity areas to track which plants are growing back – and which aren’t – in the 416 Fire burn scar.
Already, researchers are finding shrubs – like Gambel oak and chokecherry – sprouting back onto the landscape throughout all burn severity areas, though Remke said the number of plants coming back in high-severity burn areas is much lower.
“Most of what we’re seeing is generally what you’d expect, in terms of vegetation recovering around here after a fire,” he said. “It looked like a moonscape (right after the fire), but now we are seeing some rapid revegetation.”
And it does appear fire paved the way for new plants to take hold, Remke said. In the spring, for instance, there was a massive golden smoke wildflower bloom that covered the forest floor, a phenomenon that occurs only immediately after a fire passes through.
Fitzgerald said aspen are “resprouting like crazy.” And, she’s been pleased, so far, to not see a massive influx of beetles.
But the fire’s effects are still being felt. Fitzgerald said more pine trees are slowly dying, a process likely to continue for the next decade as burned trees succumb to stress.
Reforestation efforts started this year through a number of local and federal organizations. Fitzgerald said she has targeted about 300 acres ripe for replanting, which the Forest Service hopes to address in 2021.
“Ideally, you wait to see what takes care of itself before we move in,” she said. “But based on our experience from the Missionary Ridge Fire (in 2002), some areas will need a little help.”
Before the 416 Fire, Hermosa Creek could be counted on for providing the impaired Animas River with a jolt of clean, fresh mountain water.
After, not so much.
Soils burned in a fire no longer have the ability to absorb moisture, so when heavy rains hit, they send down torrents of mud, ash and debris flow laced with heavy metals and nutrients. And that’s exactly what happened in July and September last year, killing 80% of fish in the Animas River.
But Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, said past studies have shown waterways recover within one to 10 years after wildfires, and because a small amount of the 416 Fire burned at a high intensity, he estimates Hermosa Creek will fall on the shorter end of that time frame.
Already, researchers noted far lower levels of heavy metals and nutrients in Hermosa Creek this year, in part because the region didn’t see many intense monsoonal rains, which will allow the forest another year to revegetate and stabilize.
“The longer we have enough moisture for plants to grow, but not as intense for debris flow, the better,” he said.
Heavy snowpack and consistent rains in the spring flushed out a lot of the sediment suffocating the riverbed, which allows aquatic bugs, and then fish, to return. Roberts said an added bonus is the upper parts of Hermosa Creek didn’t burn, so bugs can float down.
And, it appears most of the impacted stretches are smaller tributaries to Hermosa Creek.
“I think Hermosa Creek itself is looking good,” he said. “It is recovering. You can see it in the habitat.”
Trails around Hermosa Creek, one of the most popular recreation spots near Durango, closed shortly after the 416 Fire started June 1, 2018, and didn’t reopen until May 1, 2019.
Community efforts helped get many trails back in order, said Jed Botsford, a recreation staff officer for the Forest Service’s Columbine District.
Botsford said there was a big influx of people who went back into Hermosa Creek once it opened, curious to see the effects of the fire. That visitation has tapered off, though, as more people realize the dangers of recreating in a burned landscape: namely downed trees and the risk of flash floods.
But overall, Botsford said there’s good news to report.
“The Forest Service was expecting trails to be in much worst condition,” he said. “We are grateful to see a lot of what we thought was going to be destroyed still in place.”
Mary Monroe Brown, director of Trails 2000, which helped with the restoration effort, said she’s heard mountain bikers are still getting out.
“It’s a changing landscape, and we’ll continue to see changes to the trail experience over time,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a while until we can see the things we’re doing now make a difference in, say, a decade.”
Botsford said Forest Service crews are continuing to assess the area for priority trail work. He said the agency is applying for a grant for work in 2021.