Post-Fire Photos Las Conchas and Cerro Grande

There was a long, pretty interesting and wide-ranging, discussion in the comments to this piece in High Country News, titled “Fire scientists fight over what Western forests should look like.”

Bryan Bird linked to the photo above of the Las Conchas fire, USGS gallery here.

Greg Nagle had these photos that couldn’t be posted there, so I am posting them here.

Here are Greg’s comments.

First two views are west up the canyon. I did not check closely for conifer regen but on the northerly facing slope aspen regen is vigorous. Sedimentation dam in the canyon, which I believe was put in to catch sediment contaminated by old waste dumps burned over in the fire, Note the large older trees surviving the fire on the valley floor.

Third is a view of a southerly slope showing variability in revegetation.

You can click on the photos if you want to look more closely. I tried to make them larger here but they seemed to lose their perspective. I tried to make the Las Conchas one above smaller, and it got too small.

Here are some USGS photos and the comment with it by Colin Holloway

Needless to say, you can find better & worse spots of regrowth (it does seem that the photos tend to the optimistic). in some of the slopes immediately adjacent to Los Alamos it’s all still rather desolate. In the drainage’s that managed to hold onto a little soil, things are better.
I had avoided Los Alamos for the better part of my time here, the place is kind of like David Lynch does Twilight Zone. My first impressions of the place was that it was going to be toast in a few years. I had started surveying for environmental remediation work up there in ’99. Don’t know if you’ve ever smelt that smell a ponderosa forest smells like when it’s ready to go up? Not that sweet is-vanilla-or-is-it-butterscotch smell, don’t know how to describe it but there’s a distinct odor of a distressed ponderosa stand. Or so I’ve convinced myself. Any rate the place reeked of it.
Those places are have just started to have the oaks tangle, ten years on. I haven’t had the heart to get up there since Conchas. Makes me feel like Treebeard “Many of these trees were my friends”.
On a note of insane Conehead (local vernacular for the lab rats up there) over management, engineering insanity, they built these insane check dams up there in those tuff slot canyons. Just crazy. Talk about destroying the village to save it. Of course the photos don’t describe the enormity, though one photo, in the link below, does show a huge ol’ excavator for scale.

http://ec.forestermedia.us/november-december-2000/after-the-fire.html

Of course, at Los Alamos, they were worried about radioactive material.

5 Comments

  1. The Cerro Grande fire looks typical to me of hot fires I have seen across the West. I do not know the history of the area and what evidence we have for past fire recurrence intervals but it appears to be coming back well enough. And of course the aspen is responding very well. With an aspen overstory, conditions are created that can foster more conifer regen.

    I expect that southerly slopes will take a lot longer and will show far more variable forests due to that. We know that even in the moist parts of western WA, conifer regen after fires can take a hundred years, adding to diversity in stand ages and sizes. And I learned in the Siskiyou to rise beyond my conifer centric view, what is wrong with hardwoods?

  2. These photos are interesting, so thanks for getting them posted here. I’m wondering however, what the point is. Is it to prove that the fire was “bad?” That the fire was “good?” Are some people honestly claiming that this fire was “unnatural? Or that “If x, y and z were done before the fire it wouldn’t have burned like this?”

  3. Not good or bad here. I am not familiar with the area ecology. But given the steep terrain i much doubt that there could have been any thinning or fuels treatment here. As usual, I am pleased to see remnant green trees on the valley bottom which can persist much longer, not at all uncommon to see such older stands in riparian areas surviving multiple fires, adds to structural diversity of forest habitat.

    But the fact is that the shrubs and aspen are doing well, as I might expect. I have no idea about conifer regen. I expect that someone in the Park Service or FS will have some data or opinions on that.

    I have yet to see any hot fires without good vegetation recovery within a few years, even areas in Yellowstone which myself and the Park Service did not think would recover LP and convert to meadow.

    People like richard hutto make the case that those snags provide lots of habitat for birds.

    Most of those snags in La Concha will not be there much longer, tops blow out in most locations and most appear to be smaller size so less likely to persist. In the Klamath Siskiou and ponderosa zone of central Oregon some large snags can persist much longer with their associated benefits.

    • Matthew, that’s a good question, since I think that I was originally the person who asked the question.

      It seems like there are some areas where trees are having trouble coming back (any trees, hardwood or not) and other people seemed to think that couldn’t be the case. Having been to the Hayman, it is easy to see from here.

      so I thought if I looked at a representation of post-fire vegetation from other people in the discussion, it would help me understand “where they are coming from.” I think each of us has an idea of where we are talking about when we say “x can happen”, and I thought it useful to see.

      Here’s what I think: some things about some fires (say Hayman) are “bad.” Like the sedimentation for fish and reservoirs and the lack of trees (bad for wildlife who likes them and for carbon sequestration). “natural” doesn’t really enter in here, for me, since I think it is a fuzzy concept that can lead to fuzzy policies.

      Practically speaking, we aren’t doing anything about fires except suppressing them when we are worried about impacts and treating around communities and infrastructures (Colorado has dams, powerlines, and mines on the landscape with infrastructures). I know that the powerline folks were interested in vegetation treatments around their lines outside of the ROW, and they are definitely not the timber industry trying to make a buck-it’s costing them (oops, and probably us rate-payers at some point).

  4. I have heard that in lower elevation areas of Arizona’s 2002 Rodeo Chiniski burn, conifer regen has been poor but i have never seen any data to back that up. My assumption is that if climate change is responsible for this, we are looking at conversion of some low elevation pine lands to grass/shrubs after fires.

    and if climate change is responsible, many of those warmer low elevation lands are going to see a lot more fires likely to set forests back permanently.

    However conifer regen in Biscuit and other fires over the decades in the Klamath Siskiyou has been robust, even in areas I did not expect it. This came as a surprise to me. I had the idea that many severe sites in the KS had regenerated during the cool, wet period of the little ice age and we would not get those sites back. During tree planting in those rock piles on the Klamath, it was a wonder that it ever grew trees since we could barely get in 100 trees/acre since there was little soil.

    I would expect that in Hayman fire, some slopes and aspects may take a long time to recover forests with the shrubs providing shade over time to help that.

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