Driving through burn zones

posted in: Serendipity, Travel | 4

It’s been amazingly busy around here. I’m prepping a pattern for two sock designs by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts to be printed in time for Sock Summit, which is only weeks away. I finished the interior last night, and heard back with Priscilla’s approval this morning. We work really well together—it’s an absolute delight—and it’s also a relief to put in a whole bunch of work and then get word from my collaborator that I haven’t messed anything up in the process of moving it toward its final presentation!

Anyway, I need to design the cover today AND get it to press. Meanwhile, many other things have needed attention, including a friend whom I’m going to keep company this afternoon during a chemo treatment.

I’ve been wanting to post these photos since I got back from my work with Carol Ekarius, which is almost two weeks ago.

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Driving to and from Carol’s, I passed through parts of the mountains that reminded me of the way Colorado looked when I was young, in the 1950s, which was a delight. Some photos at the end of the post look like the places I remember.

Mixed in with those impressions were sections that have recently been burned over by three wildfires, including the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado history. The Hayman incinerated more than 137,000 acres and 600 structures (including 133 homes) and destroyed large portions of some of my favorite landscapes. It was started by someone who knew better and didn’t pay attention to what she knew. Natural burns are one thing. Burns caused by human carelessness are another thing entirely.

When I see the aftermath of most burns closer to home, I am astonished at how quickly the vegetation comes back. In this case, I was stunned first by how slowly the growth is returning: after seven years, the roasted areas remain stark.

The reason, I discovered, is that the underlying granite is highly erosive and there isn’t much organic matter to support the return of grasses and other reclaiming species. Here’s some of that rock:

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It’s gorgeous, but it’s also amazing that anything grows here, ever!

Second, I was stunned that I drove for a full hour and a half through charred terrain. That’s a long time, even at two-lane speeds.

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I kept expecting to come to the end of it and I’d round a curve and see yet another expanse.

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As usual with fires, the damage was quixotic: some trees still lived although half-burned, some trees remained fully alive even though surrounded by black skeletal trunks.

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Here’s what nearby unburned areas look like:

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And. . .

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That’s more like what I remember from way back when (when Glenwood Canyon was one of my favorite places of the many that we traveled through).

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On the drive back, I picked up a couple of other photos. One was of the early part of the hailstorm I drove through (it got deeper, but I didn’t stop to snap a picture):

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I saw a guy on a bike and was thinking it wasn’t great weather for that mode of transport, and then the next view I got was of a guy out for a run, shirtless and wearing skimpy shorts. Colorado weather isn’t predictable. It’d probably looked fine when he’d left home not long before.

The following photo shows Adeline Hornbek‘s homestead, which she settled in 1878 as a single mother of four:

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What an amazing place I live in. I love going out and learning more about it, even if some of what I learn about—like the lingering fire scars, and the many changes from fifty years ago—can be hard to take.

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4 Responses

  1. If you’re an elk, a bluebird, a three-toed woodpecker, a myotis bat, or any number of beetles (critical food for baby birds, among other things) or another species that likes openings, the burned forest looks better. But we people like our trees. It just looks different depending on whose eyes you’re looking through!

    I thought of you as I was writing my blog post about lavender tonight. Maybe I should make you some lavender salve for your spinning fingertips….

  2. Before there were dams on all those drainages, the sediment that washed off burns like the Hayman Fire was one way to transfer nutrients downstream to other parts of the drainage, including as far downstream as the Mississippi Delta. Now it’s an expensive nuisance, but only because we put up dams that capture it. Our immediate interests are not always in line with those of the long-term health of forests or river systems….

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    “Breathing, we reaffirm our link to the rest of nature, especially with Earth’s plants and other photosynthesizing lives…. We and these green beings respire in lovely symmetry: they exhale the oxygen we need, we exhale the carbon dioxide they need. Breath merges our separate lives, infusing our cells with the elements common to all life.

     –Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey, just out from Univ. of Texas Press

    P.O. Box 578
    Salida, CO  81201

    BLOG http://susanjtweit.typepad.com/walkingnaturehome

  3. There’s also the matter that 21% of that particular watershed has burned in the last 13 years, between the Hayman, Buffalo Creek, and Hi Meadow fires. I suspect (but don’t know; it would be interesting to find out) that’s a tad more than would burn in that period of time under natural conditions. . . . 
  4. We do know from looking at historic fires (from tree-ring data, among other things) and historic sedimentation records that having a fifth of the watershed burn in a bit more than a decade is not unusual in the long-term sense. Catastrophic or stand-replacement fires are “normal” on an every-several-century basis in many kinds of Rocky Mountain forests, and in fact are the reason for the huge swaths of aspens that spread over whole mountainsides, and which we take such delight in come late September. But when something only happens every three hundred or five hundred years, and our people have only lived in this part of the world for a hundred-fifty years (at most), it’s not in our collective memory. (Talk to Native Americans, for instance, and you get an entirely different picture of the role of fire in these forest landscapes than most of us later-comers have.) It’s interesting how culture, number of generations inhabited, and ancestral landscape shapes our perception of what is “normal.” 

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    “As we eat our simple meal of salad, bread and fruit, the taste of fresh spinach lingers on my tongue. It is our gout de terroir, a French term often translated as ‘taste of earth’…. This taste of our garden-to-come is as local and seasonal as one can get, a connection with the soil right out the kitchen door and the sunlight that nurtures it and us, day after day.

     –Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey, just out from Univ. of Texas Press

    P.O. Box 578
    Salida, CO  81201

    BLOG http://susanjtweit.typepad.com/walkingnaturehome

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