11 June 2018

The aspen forests are burning, #416fire

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Heidi Steltzer, an Advocate in AGU’s Voices for Science program

Credit: Heidi Steltzer

I wake each morning eager to go for a run on a mountain trail. I had a plan for June trail runs. Gudy’s Rest, then Animas Mountain, Telegraph Hill,  then Skyline, a return to Animas Mountain, and then pick higher elevation trails. Hermosa Creek Trail was slated to be next. It won’t be next. The area is ablaze, homes are evacuated, and its adjacent aspen forests are burning. Smoke fills the air across the Animas River Valley and throughout Durango, Colorado.

There’s much I’d like to see change in our world. The exercise is for fitness and time to think. I think about what is needed for ‘science’ to no longer be a ‘dirty word’, a feared subject, and for the perspectives of scientists to impact decision-making, personal and collective.

I have been reading Facebook posts, news articles, and watching time lapse imagery of the #416fire burning up valley from my home. It is a spectacle. I wish for the fire to be contained — the people, pets, livestock, and homes safe.

Reports of the fire list facts. They list the acres of its extent, the number of homes evacuated, and the percent containment of the fire. I’m a mountain scientist. I don’t study fire, but I like numbers. Yet, as I read these reports there is a missing piece of the story. What preceded this fire?

This winter as in others, I’d planned for students in my ecology course at Fort Lewis College to monitor snow depth, and then design and implement a snow manipulation experiment. As a class, students choose whether to add snow, subtract snow, rain on snow, or mirroring my research melt snow early. We couldn’t do any of these. In January, in a mountain town, there was no snow.

Credit: Heidi Steltzer

As I ran in a t-shirt up and down Telegraph Hill just before the term began, I knew we’d need to study the unusual climate year – the impacts of the winter drought and record warm temperatures. I asked students to each monitor one abiotic factor, like the amount of water in the soil or air temperature, and one biotic factor, like plant health or wildlife activity. Students learned to use equipment, practice methods and began. They grew curious. Everyone could take part.


In January, soil moisture was 5% or less, and air temperatures were toasty, some 60-degree F days. The evergreen plants like juniper and pine would be photosynthesizing and require water. But 5% might not be enough water. One species of juniper did not look well, so some students began to study it.

Much of the winter and spring, it didn’t snow nor did it rain. We measured some wetter soils during a brief respite in late February and March. Students and I read articles about how stress kills trees. We thought we’d see trees die. None that we were observing did. And in April, the sickly-looking juniper re-greened. The trees have both deep and shallow roots to access water wherever it may be. They are resilient.  The trees did not chose this climate. Yet, we are choosing it.

The #416fire was preceded by a winter drought. It is preceded by inaction to manage for carbon emissions and climate change. What came before this? This question is harder to answer, though part of the solution is to teach and share science in new ways. To give students options for what they do in lab and let them explore. To create a culture in science that welcomes all.

Aspen forests typically do not burn. Across a landscape of evergreen forests, aspen are a natural fire break. When I read the news, burning aspen was the fact that caught my attention. Resilient landscapes depend on natural fire breaks. Resilient communities depend on trust — trust that we care about one another for which there is much evidence and trust that the learnings of science are true.

In Durango, Colorado, firefighters are using all they know about fire to combat the blaze. When the fire is out, we can commit to use all we know to inform choices that would reduce the risk of future fires and droughts. To protect aspen forests and us, we need to manage for carbon and foster trust in science.

Heidi Steltzer is an associate professor of biology at Fort Lewis College and an AGU Voices for Science Advocate