Hunter Creek prescribed burn deemed success as a tool for regeneration
Last spring’s prescribed burn in the Hunter Creek Valley successfully reintroduced fire as a regeneration tool, officials told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.
“We brought fire back to Aspen,” said Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program. “The community hasn’t seen it in a long time. It was a big endeavor.”
A smattering of groups and organizations, including the open space program, the city of Aspen, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Aspen Fire Department and Wilderness Workshop, spent about a year before the burn educating the community on the benefits of fire.
The prescribed burn occurred May 14, treated about 900 acres and was “well-planned, well-timed and well-executed,” said Adam McCurdy, forest program director at ACES. The previous year spent educating the public also was successful, he said.
A good example of that success was the number of 911 calls people made reporting the fire, McCurdy said. The year before, a prescribed burn on Basalt Mountain prompted 400 911 calls, he said. The Hunter Creek fire yielded a total of five 911 calls, McCurdy said.
The main goal of the Hunter Creek fire was large-scale habitat improvement, Tennenbaum said.
To that end, the county contracted with Jason Sibold, an associate geography professor at Colorado State University, to monitor the effects of the fire, Tennenbaum said.
Before the fire, Sibold said he identified 60 10-by-20 meter plots and inventoried the contents of each. After the fire, he said he discovered 21 of the 60 burned to varying degrees.
In analyzing those areas, he discovered the burned areas generated massive new aspen growth. Some of those spots had as many as 14,000 new aspen shoots coming up, which is generally enough to both feed elk, which like aspen suckers, and regenerate aspen, he said.
The average change in the number of aspen shoots in the 21 burned areas went from 190 to 2,384, and the unburned areas averaged between 200 and 300 aspen shoots, he said.
In addition, scrub oak patches that burned also have generated aspen growth in some areas, Sibold said. The analysis also found no impacts on the elk population, he said.
The Hunter Creek fire was of low-to-moderate severity, though Sibold said high-severity fires produce a “much better response.” The areas he looked at that burned 100 percent saw a huge surge in aspen suckers, he said.
Commissioner George Newman said that climate change and recent winter fires on the Front Range emphasize the need for prescribed fire.
Phil Nyland, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, said the next areas in Pitkin County being looked at for prescribed burns are the Coal Basin area off Highway 133 and the Collins Creek/Woody Creek area. Those areas provide important habitat for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep, especially winter range for reproduction, Nyland said.
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