VIDEO: Fire on the Mountain, Part Four

Read Part One

Journalist Norm Vance has maintained a strong interest in Reservoir Hill Park over the past decade.  He was one of the main proponents of the new Observation Deck currently under construction at the hill’s peak, and also helped promote improvements to the sledding hill at the Spa Trailhead.  On Saturday, October 4, Norm was one of the community members who took the “forest health” tour sponsored by the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership.

Mr. Vance helped to publicize the tour on The Journal, part of the Jim Smith Realty news website he helps edit, at PagosaSprings.com   He has a certain facility with, and a fondness for, the computer program known as Photoshop, a useful tool when one wants to combine or adjust photographic images to illustrate things that have not really happened. Here’s the illustration Norm created for his article about the October 4 Reservoir Hill event.

wildfire pagosa springs reservoir hill norm vance photoshop

In this illustration, we are looking down San Juan Street (Highway 160) from the middle of the Lewis treat intersection.  We can see the County Courthouse and Tequila’s Restaurant on the right, and can just make out the Visitor Center steeple across the river.  Rising up in the background is Reservoir Hill, which Mr. Vance has carefully enhanced to give us an idea how it might look if it were to suffer from a wildfire.

Most of us have seen photographs of recent fires here in Colorado, that somewhat resembled Mr. Vance’s illustration (minus the screaming lady.)  But as we found out during our tour of Reservoir Hill earlier this month, some of the larger pines on the hill have lived through multiple wildfires, as evidenced by the blackened or healed fire scars visible at the base of their trunks.  Reservoir Hill has in fact burned in the past.  More than once.

[incolumn]The fire in Mr. Vance’s illustration resembles a “crown fire” — the type of wildfire that kills mature pines.  We didn’t see any evidence, during the San Juan Headwaters tour, that Reservoir Hill has ever suffered from a crown fire.  But the analysis offered by the tour leaders suggested that — in its current overgrown, unhealthy condition — the existing forest might be susceptible to such an event.  Unless the forest is thinned.

That thinning process has been ongoing for the past seven years or so.  A more severe treatment of certain areas of the park is planned for this coming winter, to be conducted by our local biomass energy company, Clean Forest Energy.  But it will not include the park’s steeper slopes.

My granddaughter Amelie and I took a walk up Reservoir Hill a couple of weeks ago — one of our favorite places to exercise and enjoy nature together.  On this particular hike, we noticed a trail near the Spa Trailhead that we’d not noticed previously; the trail headed steeply up the north ridge of the hill and offered lovely views of the little town below and of the San Juan Mountains to the north.

A short ways up the trail, we came upon some pieces of a burnt tree.

forest health reservoir hill pagosa springs wildfire

After a moment of confusion, I realized that this was probably a remnant of a wildfire that took place on Reservoir Hill back in June 2008 — back when I was first experimenting with posting video clips to the Daily Post.  The fire occurred in the morning, as I recall, and was presumably started by an act of human carelessness.  It had been extinguished by the Fire Department, with some effort; it took them a couple of hours to get the fire under control.  While it was burning, I’d collected a few video interviews of some of the observant locals who had first noticed the smoke drifting up into the sky.

We have no way to know what might have happened if, for example, the fire had been started late in the evening, when downtown Pagosa is notoriously void of human activity.

As organizer Aaron Kimple had reminded us at the beginning of the San Juan Headwaters tour on October 4, wildfire in Colorado has three important aspects: the flames and the actual destruction of vegetation (and, in some cases, homes and businesses); the polluting, eye-stinging smoke and smell; and, afterwards, the increased soil erosion and its impacts on the rivers and on drinking water.

There’s one more impact that he didn’t mention.  Fear.

In 2012, during the Little Sand Fire and then in 2013 during the West Fork Complex fires, Pagosa Springs probably suffered most from the impact of smoke.  Both of those large fires occurred in relatively remote areas, and for most of us, the occasional smoke pollution was a minor annoyance.  But either fire — under slightly different wind conditions — could have destroyed numerous homes.  The West Fork Fire caused the village of South Fork to evacuate; the Little Sand Fire had the people in the Lake Hatcher subdivision packing their bags for a possible evacuation.

Fear is not a particularly desirable emotion, if your community survives mainly on tourism, or on the second-home industry.  Pagosa survives on both.  But as forester Steve Hartvigsen explained during the tour earlier this month, our southwest Colorado forests evolved in a close relationship with wildfire.  Pristine Ponderosa pine forests — before the arrival of the sheep and cattle ranchers — were subject to wildfires every dozen years, he told us.

We don’t fully understand just how important the constant cycle of fire and re-forestation has been to the health of these Colorado forests.  We’re still learning. What we do understand, however, is that current conditions are prone to catastrophic fires.  Aggressive thinning may be necessary to prevent greater disasters; regular, prescribed burning may be the next thing to which we’ll have to accustom ourselves.

Much of Reservoir Hill Park will have a very different appearance next summer.  And no doubt some people will be unhappy with the change.  The San Juan Headwaters group have their work cut out for them to prepare citizens for the “new look” of our downtown park — and to field the complaints after the work is completed.

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.