WATER LINES: Beetle kill intensifies West Fork Fire, impacts watershed | PostIndependent.com

WATER LINES: Beetle kill intensifies West Fork Fire, impacts watershed

Hannah Holm
Free Press Weekly Columnist

Attendees of the Colorado Water Workshop in Gunnison July 17-19 heard sobering news about the long-term, devastating impacts expected from the West Fork Fire complex east of Alamosa in the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests.

The fires are burning in an area hard hit by beetle kill, with many dead trees. Despite previous scientific disagreements about how beetle kill would affect wildfire behavior, anecdotal evidence suggests that areas with extensive beetle kill burn with much greater thoroughness and intensity than areas with healthy trees. This appears to be the case with the West Fork Fire complex.

The 100,000+ acres the complex has burned so far encompass the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, in a basin even harder hit by drought in recent years than the rest of Colorado.

And now the monsoon rains are here: Good for putting out fires, but problematic in other ways. Hard rain hitting burned over ground can create tremendous destruction: Land slides and loads of sediment and debris choking streams, reservoirs and other water infrastructure on which downstream communities depend.

Workshop presenters from impacted communities lauded the rapid mobilization of multi-agency teams to respond to the impacts of the fire, but also raised questions about how to prevent future fires of such magnitude and intensity. Presenters noted that there are still hundreds of thousands of acres of dead timber remaining in the region surrounding the West Fork fires, threatening additional disasters. They called for moves to reduce those risks, including investments in forest health and a reconsideration of what tools are available to manage forests in wilderness areas.

Expect the continuation of passionate debate on these issues as communities begin to feel the full impacts of the fire and investigators learn more about what factors influenced its behavior.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.

Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.

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