The Future Of The 416 Burn Area

 By MK Gunn | Summer/Fall 19

The aftermath of the 416 Fire has left us with many questions about the future of the ecosystem. In a community like Durango, it is only natural for us to be concerned about the future of the soil, plants, animals and water quality. The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) partners with the San Juan National Forest (SJNF) to provide visitor information, conservation education, and volunteer opportunities on your public lands. SJMA is committed to working with our community, and hopes to provide answers about the fire and help people access the burn area in order to learn more about what happened and what can be done to help restore these lands. On the whole, the 416 Fire was a healthy fire and will ultimately be good for the ecosystem.

2018 was a historically dry year. Over the winter of 2017-18, old timers throughout La Plata County waxed on about how they hadn’t seen a winter this dry since 1977. Mountain bike sales were way up and sales of skis and river rafts were abysmal. High mountain lakes that are normally snowed in until July were accessible in late May. The San Juan National Forest (SJNF) implemented stage 1 fire restrictions on May 1. Most years, such strict restrictions are not implemented at all. In 2016, stage 1 restrictions went into effect on July 1 and that was only for limited areas of the SJNF.

June 1, 2018 was the first day of stage 2 fire restrictions for the entire SJNF. This was also the day that the 416 Fire started. Extreme concern about this fire was partly fueled by the fact that Southwest Colorado typically receives very little rain in June. Fortunately, the edge of Hurricane Bud blew through in mid-June. Even with two days of intense rains, the 416 Fire continued to grow and was not 100% contained until July 31. The burn area contains 53,504 acres of National Forest lands. But even before the last flame was extinguished, the SJNF and other local organizations were collecting data about the fire and making plans for the future.

A great resource for information about the effects of the fire is the 416 Fire Burned Area Emergency Response Executive Summary or BAER Assessment. The information in this assessment was furnished by a team of hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, weed specialists, archaeologists, wildlife/fisheries biologists and GIS analysts.

Only 3% (1,480 acres) of the soil in the 416 burn area on national forest lands burned with high intensity. Thankfully, 67% (36,061 acres) burned only with low severity or was not burned at all. This is according to the Soil Burn Severity chart found in the final BAER Assessment. 

Low intensity burns can be a boon for new vegetation. Gambel oak and twinberry bushes can be two feet tall just two months after a major wildfire. According to the Mountain Studies Institute, “With more light penetrating the canopy and reaching the forest floor, wildflowers and tree seedlings can regenerate in abundance. Several plant species are even stimulated to germinate after exposure to heat and smoke. Fire also releases nutrients into the ecosystem and clears out diseases, allowing a new cycle of life to thrive.”

Aspens also thrive after a fire. They are a “pioneering species” which means they are some of the first trees to grow after an area of land is cleared whether by fire, avalanche or major timber clearing project. This is because aspens can sprout up from their underground root system faster than the time it takes seeds to germinate. Aspen groves benefit smaller plants such as grasses and wildflowers. The open canopy and fluttering of the leaves in the breeze allows more sunlight to reach the ground. The root system of the aspens also provides soil stability so that other plants can more easily take root.    

A healthy aspen population is hugely beneficial for wildlife. A plethora of small creatures take shelter in the grasses and shrubs that make up the ground-cover in aspen ecosystems. Just imagine how many pocket gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, song birds, mice, voles, weasels, rabbits and foxes can hide from predators or sneak up on prey on this understory. Conversely, the understory of an old growth conifer forest, like some places within the 416 burn area, provides almost no cover or forage for animals. The dense canopy of these old spruce, fir, and pine trees allows very little light to reach the ground.

Aspens also create habitat for beavers. Aspens are fast-growing and make great forests. Beaver ponds create new habitat that is utilized by as many as 80% of the species in an ecosystem.

Lindsey Hansen of the SJNF says the Forest Service would like to control invasive weeds in the burn scar to allow natural vegetation to regrow. They are also proposing to replant approximately 100 acres in the Lower Hermosa area. Replanting of riparian willows is also being considered as a restoration method. These willows would assist in streambank stabilization.  

The ecological impact of the fire is more significant that just “acres burned”. The 416 burn area encompasses most of the Hermosa Creek watershed which includes many creeks. They all flow to the Animas River which continues down to the San Juan River before mingling with the waters of Lake Powell. From there, it’s water under the dam into the Colorado River. As many of you know, the waters of the mighty Colorado are diverted widely throughout the Southwest in order to quench thirsty desert cities.  

What is in the waters of Hermosa Creek these days? As the heavy snows of the winter of 2018-19 melt off and seasonal rains pelt the steep hillsides of this watershed, scorched soils and burnt debris flow downhill and into the water. Run-off will also wash “slurry”, the fire retardant dropped by air tankers to help control the fire, into the waterways. 

The slurry is comprised mostly of water but also contains fertilizers. These fertilizers can have adverse effects on vegetation, water quality, and wildlife.  According to a National Forest Service document entitled Wildland Fire Chemical Products Toxicity and Environmental Concerns: General Information,The fertilizer contained in long-term retardants consists of ammonia and phosphate or sulfate ions. Studies show that a single retardant-drop directly into a stream may cause a sufficient ammonia concentration in the water to be lethal to fish and other aquatic organisms. The severity of the effects will be different depending on the volume of the retardant that actually enters the water, the size of the body of water and the volume of flow in the stream or river. For example, if an 800-gallon drop is made into a fast flowing river, it is likely that the lethal effects will be short-lived as dilution below the toxic level is quickly achieved. In contrast, if a 3,000-gallon drop is made into a stagnant pond, toxic levels will be likely to persist for some time.” So in the case of Hermosa Creek and its tributaries, the slurry might wash out fairly quickly. Water from melting snowpack will help to dilute the slurry’s potentially toxic effects. 

Overall, the 416 Fire was beneficial to the ecosystem. Wildland fire is a part of nature and the Hermosa Creek watershed will heal itself over time. SJMA looks forward to watching the area regenerate over the years and sharing this with the community.  

For more info on the 416 Fire, wildfire and ecosystems, go to or


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