A helicopter makes a drop of straw in the Fourmile Fire burn area during mulching efforts in April 2011.
A helicopter makes a drop of straw in the Fourmile Fire burn area during mulching efforts in April 2011. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

Mulch won't rain from the sky on the Fourmile Fire burn area this spring, as the nearly 6,200-acre land ravaged over Labor Day weekend in 2010 slowly continues its recovery.

"The reason is we've got pretty good growth on the native vegetation, and so at this point we really don't need to mulch," said Claire DeLeo, Boulder County's rehabilitation implementation team leader for the affected area, where 169 homes were destroyed and the landscape changed for decades to come.

"We have pretty good coverage in the two growing seasons now since the fire," she said. "And whatever has grown since then has put down its own natural mulch. Certainly, it's not recovered to the point of the pre-fire vegetation. But I don't think there's anything we could add by mulching, at this point."

The spring of 2011 saw the most aggressive mulching for the burn zone, with thousands of pounds of mulch airlifted by helicopter over 1,960 acres at the cost of more than $2.5 million. In 2012, mulch was applied to only 364 acres.

The two-year effort was aimed at mitigating flooding and debris flow from summer thunderstorms that might otherwise trigger a downstream deluge from the fire-blackened mountainsides.

The main reason there will be no mulching, DeLeo said, is the degree that recovery has taken place already. However, money for such work has also grown scarcer.

The funding for the first year's more expansive effort was about $1.35 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), $800,000 from the federal Bureau of Land Management, $500,000 from the state of Colorado and $42,000 from the U.S. Forest Service.

With devastating wildfires in 2012 in Colorado and other states, state and federal grant money is now flowing in other directions. Mulching and other improvements in the smaller, 364-acre area in 2012 was covered by about $285,000 from the BLM and about $564,000 from Boulder County.

By 2012, DeLeo said, she was already encouraged by the results she was seeing.

"We actually got some well-timed rains last year," she said. "Actually, last year our Fourmile burn area looked really pretty good. We had enough moisture that by mid-June, I was seeing a lot more wildflowers in the burn area. I was very pleased."

While any further mulching isn't now planned, other efforts to bring back Fourmile Canyon continue.

For example, a group of local attorneys who have coordinated seedling plantings in the area along with the Boulder County Bar Association for the past two years will do so again this year.

This year's planting -- guided by a half-dozen local law firms and involving up to 70 volunteers -- was to have taken place Saturday, in association with Monday's observance of Earth Day. But, due to the recent inclement weather, it has been rescheduled for May 4.

"We have two groups going out on the fourth, one in the morning for three hours and one in the afternoon for about three hours, on the high ridge going up Sunshine Canyon, at the top of the canyon before Gold Hill," said David Perlick, who is principal founder of Perlick Legal Counsel and part of the steering committee for the lawyers' ongoing rehabilitation efforts.

With the coordinators of the planting having raised about $1,800, they will be able this year to plant 1,000 12-inch ponderosa pine seedlings.

Boulder's Spruce Confections bakery and coffee house will be donating refreshments for the volunteers.

Those contributing their time, Perlick said, are doing so knowing that it will be generations before the full fruits of their work are realized.

"It's an investment in the future," Perlick said. "I'm an estate-planning attorney, so it's all about succession."

He said he believes it's important to the people who experienced the fire to know that there are people who still care.

"It's a bleak scenario," he said. "We're just doing what we can, and hoping some stuff takes root. ...Who knows how long it's going to take to regenerate?"

DeLeo has an idea.

"We're talking decades" to return to something close to what was there before, she said. "It takes trees 20 to 80 years to recover."

Referring to Boulder County's 1989 Black Tiger Fire, she said, "You can go to that burn area, and the trees are just starting to recover. The trees are 5 to 6 feet in height, but they are not to the level they were before."

And, DeLeo said, severe forest fires have such a transformative effect on the landscape that what results is a permanent "change in the forest structure, and a change in the plants."

"It's never going to look the way it did before. It's just going to be different."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.