The burned mountainside looked like the back of a hedgehog; the dead, limbless trees now golden spikes, their once charcoal coats blasted away by blowing snow crystals. Emerald green grass and sedges covered the ground with optimism. Nine years earlier was it laid bare by the Papoose Fire.
I spent three days in July hiking and camping in Trout Creek west of Creede. The drainage was where the last big run of the Papoose Fire occurred in 2013. It also happened to be the location of the biggest run of all three fires that made up the West Fork Complex, consuming more than 14,000 acres of meadows, aspen and beetle-killed spruce-fir forest in one day. I had last backpacked into the area in 2015 to witness and photograph nature’s response to the fire and now I was back to check on it again.
The Papoose Fire was spotted on June 19, the same day that the West Fork Fire sent embers over the Continental Divide into the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande. Two firefighters were sent to check on it the morning of June 20, but the West Fork Fire exploded and the firefighters were turned around to assist with evacuating people camping and hiking near Big Meadows Campground west of the town of South Fork. The Papoose Fire also expanded quickly on that dry, windy day sending a smoke column thousands of feet into the air, but it was not an immediate threat to people.
Lush sedges and grasses brushed halfway up my legs as I bushwhacked up East Trout Creek. Monsoonal rains falling on ash and exposed soils obliterated much of the trail in 2013. Any tread that was left had disappeared below a thick carpet of thigh-high fireweed when I visited in 2015.
Fireweed is well named as it often flourishes after forest fires. It is a true pioneer species that produces over 10,000 seeds on a single plant. These dandelion-like seeds can travel miles in the wind and have a high germination rate when they fall on exposed soils. Once they begin to become established in a burned area, they extend out rhizomes further, filling in nearby open areas.
In the autumn, the above-ground stems, leaves and seed heads of fireweed die and cover the ground creating a mulch that along with its perennial root system helps stabilize soils within just a year or two. Fireweed is not a good competitor though, and over time an assortment of other species move in and take over.
After a few hours of hiking, I found a perfect camping spot in a meadow a couple hundred feet from a side drainage. A small group of green 30- to 40-foot-tall spruce hugged the creek, creating a two-acre island surrounded by meadow and burned forest. These trees were young enough to have survived the spruce beetle and lucky enough to have had the fire skip over them. I stepped into the widest part of the greenbelt and was instantly scolded by at least five different species of birds. They were none too happy about my intrusion, so I quickly departed and walked back into the meadow to search for a flat spot to set up my tent.
The morning clouds grew into puffy white mountains of water vapor in the afternoon. I strolled along the top of a cliff band that hemmed in the main creek. The creek formed plunge pools and long, smooth glides between bouldery cascades. A large trout held its position near the top of one pool as several smaller trout jockeyed for position a little ways behind it. Occasionally, one of the smaller trout would try to move up and the larger one would chase it away causing a reshuffling of all the others.
Large thunderstorms in 2013 and 2014 caused flash flooding in side drainages, dumping debris and ash into Trout Creek. Hundreds of dead trout were counted downstream below the burn after one large cloudburst. Ash in streams can kill fish by abrading their gills, causing them to suffocate, and may increase nitrogen levels in the water to a point of toxicity. Luckily, some trout survived and the population seems to be thriving once again.
I retreated to my campsite to cook dinner when the shadows were halfway up the mountain on the other side of East Trout Creek. Three cow elk wandered down through burned trees on the other side of the island of spruce. They all spooked when they caught wind of me, two heading back up the mountain while the other trotted down slope and crossed the main creek.
The lone elk walked into the burned trees part way up the slope facing me while I ate freeze dried Thai chicken. She obviously wasn’t very happy and barked while the other two mewed uphill from me.
Many people believe that wildfires decimate wildlife living in the area, but that isn’t the case for many species. Most large mammals, such as bear, elk and deer successfully flee approaching fires while smaller mammals seek refuge in underground shelters. Birds will fly away, but their eggs and chicks won’t fare well if the tree tops burn during nesting season.
The next day, I decided to hike up the steep mountainside above my camp to the Continental Divide. The entire slope had burned leaving behind pencil-shaped trees, but just like the area I had hiked the day before, the ground was carpeted with grasses, sedges and flowering herbaceous plants. I spooked three deer and a coyote as I noisily worked my way uphill.
Eventually, I reached an exposed ridge that led to the Divide. It was open enough for me to get a good view up and down East and West Trout Creeks. I noticed that the fire didn’t reach all the way up into some of the mountain bowls. In those areas, jade subalpine fir and young spruce mixed with the beetle-killed trees. There were also a few small islands of conifers eking out an existence between cliff bands.
Several large stands of aspen trees once thrived along the main stem of Trout and lower East Trout creeks. Most of these stands burned in the Papoose Fire. The barkless, white skeletons of the dead aspen contrasted sharply with the light green leaves of the aspen saplings crowding around them. While the fire burned ferociously up the drainage in 2013, it didn’t burn hot enough in the aspen stands to kill the root systems. Sprouts began to pop up within two weeks after the fire moved through and they were three to four feet tall when I hiked the area in 2015. Now they were 10 to 12 feet tall and as dense as stands of bamboo.
Lightning flashed up on the Divide above me and thunder echoed among the peaks. I decided the Divide would have to wait until another day and headed to lower ground. That evening the sun painted the clouds orange as I finished the last of my dinner. The elk were talking somewhere up in the burned trees above me while the small creek nearby gurgled like a Zen fountain. Later, as I dozed off to sleep, a group of coyotes sang a cappella.
The Papoose Fire was just one of hundreds of large wildfires in the West over the last 20 years. Because it is in my backyard, I have paid particular attention to how this burned area is changing over time. I can look up Trout Creek from our house and have a clear view of Baldy Mountain where the fire started. Each autumn, Baldy Mountain glows orange and gold in the afternoons when the sun backlights the hundreds of thousands of young aspen on its slope. In another 60 or 70 years, these trees will create middle-aged forests.
The spruce/fir forests that once covered the area is a different story. Most of the Engelmann spruce trees larger than five inches in diameter died during the spruce beetle epidemic. The remaining subalpine fir and young spruce were destined to be the next coniferous forest, but most burned in the fire. While there are several small pockets of spruce and fir that survived, it will take many centuries for the coniferous forests of the past to once again cover the land, but only if future climatic conditions and disturbances allow it to happen.
Nature is really quite amazing with how it finds a way of filling barren ground with life. It may not always be what we desire or happen as fast as we want, but nature will respond to the conditions on the land its own way in its own time. Understanding that helps to not be overwhelmed with sadness when looking at beetle-killed forests and burned areas, but instead be in awe of nature’s power of recovery.
Mike Blakeman retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2019 after a 41-year career working in recreation, forestry, environmental education and public affairs. During that time, he has also worked on wildfires as both a firefighter and fire information specialist. Mike lives at 9,000 feet above sea level west of Creede and enjoys photography, hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.