Remarkable recovery: Many areas on Basalt Mountain bouncing back quickly after fire
ACES will hold at least one more fire ecology tour of Basalt Mountain in September and possibly another, depending on interest. Contact the organization at 970-925-5756 for details.
Walk through the wildfire-scorched forest on Basalt Mountain today and you’ll find that brilliant-hued fuchsia fireweed covers numerous patches between blackened conifer trunks and seared white aspens. Waist-high grasses, nearly neon colored, and numerous aspen saplings cover portions of the forest floor once nearly barren because the thick canopy overhead didn’t allow sunshine in. Windows are now open in the canopy and provide views of massive Red Table Mountain and majestic Mount Sopris, which were previously obscured. A fresh pine scent has overtaken the damp campfire smell prevalent on the mountain this spring.
Many people in the Roaring Fork Valley were devastated to see so many acres of forest burn on Basalt Mountain last summer during the Lake Christine Fire.
But devastation has turned to fascination. They now have a front-row seat to a remarkable recovery unfolding daily before their eyes.
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is providing a glimpse at the changing forest through fire ecology walks on Basalt Mountain this summer and fall. Adam McCurdy, the nonprofit organization’s forest programs director, has led three public groups of 10 people each into the heart of the forest. A group touring on Aug. 14 consisted of a mix of local residents who were well versed on the fire but curious about the recovery and second-home owners trying to learn more about the entire event — from disaster to recovery.
“It’s hard to see some place you love have that happen to it,” McCurdy told the group about the disaster.
His first lesson on the four-hour tour was probably the most important. He told his audience to watch out for trees that were uprooted but still standing and snagged on other trees. In other cases, trunks were hollowed-out by the intense fire but their shells remain upright. The next big wind or the one after that will bring them down. Construction hardhats were required on his tour.
Thousands of standing, charred conifer trunks dot the slopes of Basalt Mountain. Most were stripped of limbs but others were simply roasted. They faced heat intense enough to turn the needles a dull rust color.
The roots of all those standing dead are already rotting.
“It will be about five years from now when we’ll worry about those trees falling down,” McCurdy said.
People on the tour were surprised there is such a mosaic burn pattern on the mountain. Large swathes were wiped but intermingled with areas that were untouched or only faintly singed. Winds blew embers around Basalt Mountain during the early days and nights of the fire, so the burn scar is splotchy rather than uniform.
The severity of the burn on the soil dictates the rate of recovery, McCurdy said. In slightly and moderately burned soil, the nutrients are unlocked and the vegetation responds with prolific growth. In high burn severity, the plants cannot process the nutrients, McCurdy said.
Areas that weren’t burned as severely are already covered in thick vegetation and young aspens. In other areas, the group is covered with a dark, dusty soil that kicks up big clouds when hiking boots tromp through.
“There are areas of out-of-control vegetation,” McCurdy said. “One-and-a-half months ago there was nothing.”
The one constant in the fire scar is the burned tree trunks. The blackened bark is flaking off, exposing the white underbelly of wood beneath.
“There’s kind of an eerie beauty in here,” said Diane Oshin, a New York City resident who is spending the summer in the Aspen area.
She signed up for ACES’ fire ecology tour because she tries to take advantage of all of the conservation group’s field programs. “They’re the best,” she said of ACES, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. She particularly likes how the organization collaborates with other groups to present programs.
The recovery of the forest will likely provide numerous benefits, McCurdy told the tour group. Aspen trees will proliferate where they were previously crowded out by conifers, so Basalt Mountain could be spectacular in future fall leaf-peeping seasons when the aspens mature.
“You can imagine in five, 10 years this is going to be a great mix of aspen with meadows,” McCurdy said.
Ungulates benefited from the fire because meadows will be more widespread and young aspens are among their favorites foods, McCurdy said. Insects will feast on the rotting wood so woodpeckers and other birds will feast on the insects.
Catherine Hagen of Aspen went on the tour with a particular interest to see if birds returned to the mountain. She had binoculars and a camera in tow, which she employed whenever she heard a bird or detected motion in the branches overhead. She got an excellent shot of a Clark’s nutcracker — ashy-gray torso with black-and-white wings and tail feathers — sitting at the top of a burned trunk.
The 10 people on the tour peppered McCurdy with questions. Were firebreaks created on the mountain? (Yes, some by hand and some with heavy machinery). Did above-average snowfall last winter and a wet spring accelerate the recovery? (It certainly didn’t hurt. If last winter would have been as dry as 2017-18, the grasses, wildflowers and aspen saplings probably wouldn’t be this far along.) Will the conifers that kept their needles bounce back? (Probably not. They suffered damage to the cambium layer, which is critical to their growth.)
After touring a part of the mountain dominated by Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir trees, McCurdy leads the group to the Ditch Trail on lower Basalt Mountain, where fire licked at massive Douglas fir trees. They are better adapted to fire and have thicker bark. One massive tree’s trunk was burned 20 feet off the ground but looked relatively healthy in its towering heights. “I think it will be OK,” McCurdy said.
The outlook for the West’s forests overall is more bleak. McCurdy matter-of-factly raised the topic of climate change and the warming planet, in a scientific way without apocalyptic drama, during the tour. Higher temperatures are resulting in drier weather in many parts of the West. Drier conditions make forest more susceptible to fire. More people create higher risk of fire.
“We certainly could, as things get warmer, see more fire in this valley,” McCurdy said.