Scorched by the flames of last year’s devastating High Park Fire, the trees and earth remain only as ashy memories of a would-be forest. Yet, even though the sight seems bleak, you can see the hope and life that pushes to the surface despite the ashes. Hope that takes form not just in the plants that begin to grow back, but in the efforts and determination of the many people who would set aside an entire Saturday to volunteer for a post-fire restoration project.
May 11, 2013, a couple weeks before the semester ended, more than a dozen volunteers, including myself, headed up to a private ranch in Stove Prairie for a project organized by non-profit Wildland Restoration Volunteers. Our mission? Wattle installation.
“Wait, what are wattles?” That was my question when we first got on site, but after hiking the ridge, I saw stacked and lying in perfect spirals were 25-foot long sausage links of hay – wattles. For the entire day, four other women and myself lugged the wattles down the slope of the hill and dug shallow trenches at designated spots. We then placed the wattles in the trenches, making sure that they were even with the contours of the earth along the slope’s water drainages. After which, we pounded the wattles in place with stakes and, finally, packed them in with dirt.
Wattle installation is just one component of WRV’s fire restoration treatments, all of which aim to reduce erosion, runoff and flooding caused by high severity fire. When the High Park Fire burned through the forest, it scorched the soil so badly that the earth is unable to absorb water. So, when it rains, the water, instead of slowly soaking into the soil, just hits the ground and continues to run down the slope. Without anything to absorb the water or break its speed, it picks up sediment and other debris, which then, in the case of Fort Collins, runs into the Poudre River – one of the city’s primary water sources.
The wattles, however, stop the water’s flow, allowing it time to sink into the soil. Other treatment techniques include planting native grass seeds, which create a root matrix that helps hold the soil in place, and laying down mulch, which protects the seeds and has enough surface roughness to slow the water down as well.
The Stove Prairie area in particular has several severely burned drainages, like the one we worked on that day, that intersect with the Poudre Canyon Highway and the Poudre River, making it a high-priority area to address.
“I think given that this watershed is so integral to so many aspects of the lives of the 300,000 people who live downstream from the watershed, not to mention the people who live in the Poudre River watershed and who are directly affected by the fire — given that it is so integral to our lives in that way — it is really important to address these near-term impacts of high severity fire,” said Jennifer Kovecses, WRV restoration coordinator.
By the end of the day, our faces smeared with soot, looking up the slope at the half-a-dozen wattles decorating the drainage, we could see the results of our labor. For one of my fellow crewmembers, Kristen Dean, program coordinator at the CSU Environmental Learning Center, this was her favorite part of the day she said in a phone interview, being able to see all of the work we had accomplished.
Even though our bodies ached, the day’s labor meant so much more than successful wattle installation. It also meant, turning the pain of the fire into hope. I could see it in the determination put in by all of the volunteers that day and I can see it today in the firefighters that risk their lives to contain these fires and the communities that come together to help those who lost homes.
I was on the other side of the mountains when the High Park Fire tore through Fort Collin’s backyard, and as Dean put it, volunteering that day was our way of doing our part to help the community rebuild. Because, even though it has been a year since the High Park Fire, its impacts will linger on, affecting all of us who depend on the Poudre for clean water and those who lost homes and livelihoods. Even though the flames have been extinguished, families are still rebuilding, the watershed is still at risk and ecosystems are still trying to bounce back.
Colorado has experienced so much pain this summer and last, but hope and regrowth lie beneath the ashes, it just requires a little bit of labor and love to find it. I ask you to take this challenge.
“[Post- fire restoration] is a very positive way for community members to contribute to something that was such a scary and emotional event,” Kovecses said. “And, I think it is a hopeful thing to do and it is an easy way for people to give back and also learn about what has happened to their watershed and really connect to making those changes happen.”
Content producer Ricki Watkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.