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Regrowth: The science behind nature's comeback from the Black Forest Fire

Posted at 7:07 AM, Jun 15, 2023

EL PASO COUNTY — Here at the Pineries Open Space, the Black Forest Fire burn scar serves as a reminder of the massive blaze that lit up this area 10 years ago.

"It's incredible to see! You know, on the one hand, fire is of course a very natural part of the forest ecosystem, especially out here in the west," said Justin Louen, Service Hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo.

The destructive 2013 blaze has redefined the landscape here.

A Timeline of the Black Forest Fire

"Following a wildfire... at the very least, it takes at least a couple of years to have some meaningful vegetative regrowth," said Louen.

But when it comes to new growth, it's the soil that plays a prominent role.

"Overall, in a post-wildfire landscape and environment, there are tremendous impacts to the soil. You know it's just a complete night and day difference," said Louen.

When a fire burns with such high intensity as the Black Forest Fire did, the topsoil layer often becomes waxy.

This so-called hydrophobic layer can severely stunt new growth.

Hydrophobic Soil Explainer
A hydrophobic soil layer that can form after large wildfires can prevent vegetative growth in newer burn scars

"Those hydrophobic kinds of soil conditions, they can last for years. Again, kind of depending on the intensity of the fire itself and how just hot everything burned," said Louen.

The hydrophobic layer can prevent water from reaching the soil beneath the surface, as water runoff rates will be higher.

More runoff and less absorption into the soil will, in turn, have a direct impact on how quickly the forest recovers.

"In the best case scenario, if we do start getting some decent regrowth, the root systems will inevitably help sort of break up that hard, hydrophobic layer, and it will help re-establish the structure of the soil too," said Louen.

As for the future of the burn scar... recovery is a slow process, but there are signs of progress.

Some appear subtle, some more noticeable than others.

"There is a lot of green on the ground [here], which is always better than nothing. Certainly a lot of grasses, and I am also seeing some young saplings too," said Louen.

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