Land still recovering from Coal Seam Fire | AspenTimes.com
John Gardner
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

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Land still recovering from Coal Seam Fire

Wildflowers and underbrush have grown back, leaving the charred, barren trees as one of the only clues to what the Coal Seam fire destroyed five years ago in Glenwood Springs. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Five years ago, the Coal Seam Fire burned a total of 12,229 acres in and around Glenwood Springs. Now, a half a decade later, the charred remains of trees on the hillsides serve as a silent reminder of that day.

Those charred remains also are surrounded by greener foliage, a constant reminder of the rebirth of the landscape.

Most of the areas where fire touched are greener today due to efforts of the Burned Area Emergency Reclamation Team (BAERT). Before the fires were extinguished they began planning the long road back to replenishing the hillsides with what the fire took away.

“It was a huge operation,” said Dan Sokal, Natural Resource Specialist for the White River National Forest. “We were competing for the same resources like helicopters and airplanes that were being used at the Hayman fire. There were a lot of things working against us that summer.”

There were several fires across the state in the summer of 2002.

As Sokal searched through photos cataloging the fire and the reclamation efforts on his desk-top computer in his Glenwood Springs office, he remembered it as if it happened yesterday.

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“In the past, the reclamation wasn’t thought of until months later,” he said. “But now we think of what can be done immediately to begin rehabbing the ground.”

The destruction of the fire was so intense that if they didn’t act fast other disasters such as flooding, mudslides and dust storms could become a real problem, even life-threatening, for residents around the burn area.

Several months following the fire, some residents did have to deal with mud and debris from the charred hillsides.

Sokal worked for the Bureau of Land Management at the time, and headed up the Emergency Rehabilitation Project for the area. Several other government agencies, including the Forest Service and the City of Glenwood Springs, also were involved in re-introducing vegetation to other burned areas, but the majority of the burned area was on public lands managed by the BLM.

To reduce the risk of disaster, the effort was initially focused on three areas – the Mitchell Creek drainage watershed above the Mitchell Creek Fish Hatchery, Red Mountain south of where Glenwood Meadows is currently located and the S.O.B. watershed in the valley to the south of Red Mountain.

The emergency stabilization projects were divided into three phases.

“The main point is to stabilize the slopes with perennial grasses to prevent the immediate removal of topsoil and prevent erosion,” Sokal said. “It’s not focused on restoring full vegetation.”

Crews worked on laying straw logs called wattles across the steep hillsides to prevent mudslides. Soil netting material was installed to prevent topsoil erosion and broadcast seeding was done using a “hydro mulch” and seed mixture of native grasses to establish a good base system for vegetation. The mixture was dropped by single-engine crop-dusting planes on the steep hillsides.

“Having the grass growing is important because it helps prevent runoff,” Sokal said. “We had grass growing before the end of the growing season. It was definitely a good jump start for getting good perennial grasses growing strong.”

The total cost of the efforts listed was around $1.5 million. But the BLM and Sokal were very pleased with the effectiveness and the timeliness of the work.

“It’s evident that it helped establish vegetation within a year,” Sokal said.

However, the charred tree remains will be the only kind of trees to stand on the hillsides for years to come, Sokal said.

“Most of the oak brush has already returned,” he said. “But the pinion pines and the juniper will take decades to replace.”

Decades to replace what was taken in a matter of hours.