We were standing on the trail that ascends 8,012-foot Mt. McConnel, just west of Fort Collins, Colorado. The peak was torched in the High Park fire back in 2012; you might think that, almost a decade later, ponderosa pines would be reclaiming their turf. But no. Scorched trees stood at attention right up to the horizon, like the honor guard for a funeral. Cause of death: climate change.
And yet, Camille Stevens-Rumann, Ph.D., assistant professor of forest and rangeland stewardship at Colorado State University, was smiling. She was looking down at her feet, where a fuzzy little pasque flower was pushing up through the forest litter. Two native bufflehead mason bees spelunked for nectar inside the blossom. The name “pasque” sounds like the French word for Easter, which is about when this purple wildflower emerges from the earth. I saw it as an apt sign that resurrection is possible, even on this blackened mountainside.
Last summer, record-breaking wildfires tore through Colorado, torching 625,000 acres of forest. The East Troublesome fire, 50 miles from my house in Fort Collins, erupted from 18,550 to 187,964 acres in three days last October, turning the skies orange, rendering the sun a bloodshot eyeball, and plunging air quality into the hold-your-breath range. In the same incendiary season, the Cameron Peak fire, just to the north of East Troublesome, and the Pine Gulch fire, on the Western Slope, roared to the top of the list of Colorado’s largest-ever wildfires.
But even before the smoke cleared, I felt some hope.
Just after my wife and I moved to Colorado in 2017, our niece Kellie came out on a college reconnaissance trip. I suggested a hike up Mt. McConnel in Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins. We walked a stretch of trail through fragrant ponderosas and Douglas fir by the river, then marched uphill into a forest graveyard. But it wasn’t all scorched earth: A summer show of Indian paintbrush, bluebell, elephant’s head, and blanket flower covered the otherwise bare mountain flanks. It reminded me that nature is an opportunist. When trees go, other species get a chance.
Living through the hell of Rocky Mountain fires in 2020, I thought of those wildflowers. A tree’s death opens a life-giving patch of sunlight on the forest floor, and a fallen trunk provides a habitat for small creatures and returns nutrients to the soil. Fire is also a tool for some trees: The southern shortleaf pine and the California buckeye sprout from their roots when fire kills the crown. Colorado’s lodgepoles are serotinous pines, meaning they have waxy cones that only release their seeds after extreme heat.
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