Kinnikinnick and mountain muhly grass sprout from the blackened soil along the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail. Woodpeckers in search of bugs have chipped away the char from the trunks of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.
These are the welcome signs of life returning to the interior of the Flagstaff Fire's 300-acre burn area.
Trails crews and wildland firefighters have spent recent weeks removing hazard trees, rehabilitating fire containment lines and rebuilding trails damaged by run-off. They hope to be able to open the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail by the end of the month and the Shadow Canyon Trail, the other still-closed trail, by the end of the year.
Ecologists with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks say the fire will leave the forest healthier and more diverse -- with meadows providing grasses for deer and elk and perhaps larger aspen stands -- than it was before the fire.
"We went from an area where all the forest was of similar density to a lot of clearings and openings," said Open Space and Mountain Parks forest ecologist Chris Wanner. "You get these different habitats. We don't usually see these patches on the landscape because fire has been taken out of the landscape."
The fire was "spotty," Wanner said. For instance, there is a large swath of completely burned trees in the bowl between Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak, but in other areas, just the understory burned. The result is a "forest mosaic," Wanner said.
Crews are not re-seeding the burn area. With the exception of digging up invasive species like mullen and musk thistle, open space ecologists prefer to let nature chose which plants will grow in the now-open forest. After rains late this summer, native grasses and other plants already are growing in the burn area.
That approach is a change from years past. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, mountain pine beetle devastated Boulder's open space, and crews planted non-native grasses to prevent erosion.
Erosion is still a primary concern, but crews now take a different approach. Much of the restoration work is aimed at controlling run-off, said Megan Bowes, a plant ecology technician with Open Space and Mountain Parks.
Of primary concern are the miles of containment lines crews dug around the fire that now carry sediment with every storm and exacerbate the erosion; crews also don't want the containment lines to become de facto trails when the area is reopened to hikers. So they're cutting down trees that could pose a hazard, as well as some unburned trees, and using them to create "texture" along the containment lines that will slow run-off and make them less attractive to hikers.
Trails crews are also taking advantage of the break to do long-needed maintenance and shore up the trails with rocks. Finding suitable rocks amid the terrain can be challenging, though, as the fire has left some rocks so brittle they fall apart when lifted.
Wind can also slow the work. It's not safe to cut down trees when gusts get above 10 mph.
The approach on the mountainside is different than the approach being taken to the fire lines dug to protect south Boulder neighborhoods when the fire threatened to burn toward the city. The smaller fire lines near houses there have been restored, while a larger fire line in the open space has been turned into a trail, which was already in the planning stages, with some boulders moved to ensure that fire trucks can get to the area if necessary.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.