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The Little Sand Fire?— the outcome and effects

Started in the beginning of May with a lightning spark, the Little Sand Fire burned through June, with plumes of smoke towering over the northwest part of Pagosa Country becoming an expected part of the day.

At the beginning of July, thanks to the monsoonal rains, the fire was contained. The burn totaled approximately 25,000 acres 13 miles northwest of Pagosa Springs. The question that now flashes in locals’ minds is what will become of the forest that burned? How will it change?

To answer these questions, SUN staff e-mailed questions to Fuels Forester Scott Wagner, Wildlife Biologist Anthony Garcia and Hydrologist Ivan Geroy, all with the Pagosa Ranger District.

Fire and ecosystem

Though there has not been any smoke seen from the fire for weeks, Wagner said that there have been reports of interior stump holes or logs still smoldering. This, he said, might continue until snow cover extinguishes these fires.

According to Wagner, the fire burned as follows: 80 percent of the burn area burned at low to moderate intensity, 15 percent did not burn and 5 percent burned at high intensity.

“The largest area of high intensity burn is in the head of Sand Creek below the Mosca Road. Much of the forest here was cool-moist mixed conifer with aspen. The aspen will likely re-sprout by next summer. Some areas where there was no aspen previously will become grass or shrubs,” Wagner said. “The main difference between low intensity and moderate intensity is the amount of scorch on the trees. The low intensity received scorch on less than 30 percent of the crown and most of the trees will survive.”

Fir, white fir and Douglas fir were the main trees killed by the fire, Wagner explained. Many of the fir, he continued, had been killed by bark beetle attack previous to the fire. The fir grew in the understory of the ponderosa, and the ponderosa pine will benefit “from the thinning of understory and recycling of nutrients into the soil.” However, though Wagner said there is a short-term reduction in fuels in the ponderosa pine stands, in a few years many of the small dead trees will fall and add to the surface fuels. Wagner estimates that over 50 tons of fuels were burned per acre. This caused the fire to produce so much smoke.

One thing that Wagner said is also expected is the increase of noxious weeds over the next few years, so a weed control program will be increased in the burn area.

Also, Wagner said that aspen will sprout in all the areas where it existed prior to the fire and in 10 to 15 years the majority of the burn area will have dense stands of aspen trees, with trees up to 25 feet tall.

All in all, Wagner said that, “in the long-term the ecosystem will be healthier and have a greater variety of tree species, ages and sizes.”

Fire and wildlife

Pagosa Ranger District wildlife biologist Anthony Garcia explained that low intensity burns generally result in minimal impacts to vegetation, while moderate and high intensity burns can have a larger impact on vegetation.

“Regardless,” Garcia said, “the overall effect to wildlife can be positive or negative depending on the species.”

Short-term effects for some species, Garcia explained, include the removal of trees used for food and cover. However, Garcia said that the long-term effects are expected to be mostly beneficial to all species associated with ponderosa pine forests such as Abert’s squirrel, flammulated owl, northern goshawk and others.

“Many ponderosa pine-associated species are highly adapted to fire, and they prefer stand conditions that contain small openings interspersed within areas of dense trees or clumps, conditions we expect to see in the long-term,” Garcia said, adding, “These desirable fire effects will help restore these stands to a more healthy condition and help sustain habitat for species in the long-term.”

Garcia also said that the increase in aspen regeneration will provide additional and extremely valuable habitat for wildlife.

“Many wildlife species utilize aspen forests for feeding due to the abundant and highly nutritious forage available. As trees continue to grow and increase in size, they provide optimal nesting habitat for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals,” Garcia said. In addition, Garcia said that this increase will also provide optimal foraging habitat for black bear, elk, mule deer, Merriam’s turkey and other wildlife attracted to the highly nutritious and abundant food sources.

As to the mortality of animals due to the fire, Garcia said that most mammal and bird species are able to flee burn areas, thereby minimizing risk of mortality.

“Although risk of fire-caused mortality is evident, wildlife native to areas with a long history of fire persist in habitat affected by fire; and many species actually thrive because of fire’s influence,” Garcia explained.

Fire and the watershed

Pagosa Ranger District Hydrologist Ivan Geroy explained that due to the extreme patchiness of the high intensity areas and that the majority of the fire burned at low to moderate intensity, there is little damage to watershed and soil resources.

“Recent heavy rain storms have generated localized areas of increased erosion and sedimentation, particularly in the Sand Creek drainage,” Geroy said, adding, “However, these changes are minor, and are very unlikely to have significant downstream impacts. Overall the long term benefits to watershed health from reducing fuel loading (and consequently reducing the risk of high intensity fires in the future), far outweigh the short-term localized problems that have resulted from the Little Sand Fire.”

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