The work has already begun, but it'll take many years. 

Across the state of Colorado, wildfires have left a significant mark this year. While many are now contained and no longer an active threat, the impact from these historic fires will be felt in Colorado’s beloved forests for years to come.

Colorado has several entities working on fire restoration, including groups from Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, along with federal programs from the U.S. Department of the Interior Burn Area Rehabilitation Program. The work will span years and will never fully be done.

After the blaze is extinguished, the healing process begins, and it's different depending on where the fire was and what ecosystems, wildlife, and plants were in the area. In some cases, the forest that once was will never recover; in others, new life will take root and grow. The high-intensity heat alters the landscape and can hinder the ability of what can or cannot regrow there.

Fire is a natural part of ecosystems and plays a role in forest decomposition; controlled low-intensity burns are often used as a method of forest and fire management. When a wildfire hits it burns extremely hot, it can destroy everything—including topsoil, surface plants, roots, and organic matter. The area becomes vulnerable to erosion, which also leads to contamination of water sources.

There are a variety of ways forest regrowth and restoration happens after a wildfire. In some areas, the forest landscape may become more like grasslands and shrublands. A study published by the University of Colorado Boulder in August 2020 looked at post-fire recovery and found that the resilience of forests to fires has decreased as the climate has become warmer and drier. Higher-elevation forests with more precipitation did better, while lower elevations were less resilient. Areas that had surviving trees tended to have a better chance at recovery, as seeds can be spread through wind and water, and regrowth can happen naturally. 

“We project that post-fire recovery will be less likely in the future, with large percentages of the Southern Rocky Mountains becoming unsuitable for two important tree species—ponderosa pine and Douglas fir,” said lead author Kyle Rodman, who was a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at the time of the study.

Some species will rebound quickly, some will not. According to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extention "The ability of a tree to withstand fire damage is based on the thickness of the bark, rooting depth, needle length, bud size, and degree of scorch."

Below is a breakdown of some common tree species in Colorado's forests, and how they react to fire:

  • The lodgepole pine, for example, requires heat from a fire to open its cones and let out new seeds. Those trees tend to grow back naturally. The regrowth cycle is rapid, with new trees growing in two or three years. 
  • Ponderosa pine roots stretch deep into the ground and develop a thick bark that can help them survive a wildfire. Ponderosas do better in low-intensity heat. like a controlled burn, and can survive those fires well. High-intensity fires take a harder toll on this species. These trees will drop their seeds when cones dry out, and the belong needles will protect buds from flames, helping the seeds to survive.
  • Douglas fir trees have similar characteristics to the Ponderosa pine. Their seeds are spread through wind dispersal, rodents, and birds. Moisture must be present and will affect the Douglas fir's ability to regrow, as will the condition of the soil after a fire. 
  • Aspen trees have thin bark and do not withstand fire well, however, they often rebound well in areas where conifers have burned. The presence of aspen may increase after a fire. They are not as flammable as some species and this can cause some fires to jump or miss fully developed aspen stands. 
  • Pinion and juniper are highly flammable and do not do well with fire. They must be restarted from seed and can take decades to grow back fully. 

As we all watch and see what the final damage is, we are reminded of how destructive these blazes are, and how delicate our state’s landscape truly is. It's important to always practice fire safety and to pay attention when the state gets extremely dry. One small mistake or careless act can result in major devastation.

Do you know of any ways or local organizations that are working to help restore Colorado’s forests that have been affected by fires? Share with us in the comments.