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History of Fire in Ken-Caryl Ranch Area

Wildfires are a natural part of Colorado’s ecosystems. Before European settlers began suppressing them, wildfires would burn periodically through the grasslands and forests as a result of lightning or Native American ignitions. Fires could occur throughout the year, depending upon the cause, weather conditions, and how dry the natural fuels would be.

In the lower Front Range areas of Colorado, wildfires would occur: in the grasslands every one to three years; in the grass and shrub areas every decade or so; in the ponderosa pine forests every two to three decades; and every 50-200 years or more in the mixed conifer forests of Douglas-fir, aspen and ponderosa pine.

Wildfires in the grasslands and grass/shrub areas would burn rapidly and hot. They would only last as long as it took to consume the dry grasses or the wind would be blowing to spread the fire. Wildfires in the ponderosa pine forests would remove accumulated leaf litter, woody materials and vegetation (grass, shrubs and small trees) by natural, low-intensity surface fires. Large fires occurred less frequently as there was less fuel for them to burn. On those occasions when drought, wind and topography aligned, large wildfires that also burned through the mixed conifer forests found on wetter and north-facing slopes would result in “crown” fires that would kill some or all of the trees. These mixed conifer forests would gradually recover through regrowth of aspen and reseeding from adjacent trees that had survived the wildfire. In all cases, the ashes of the burned vegetation would recycle nutrients back into the soil and help feed the growth of new plants.

Since settlement, natural wildfire occurrences within the ecosystems of the Ken-Caryl Ranch area have been interrupted. This has altered some of the natural conditions that would be kept in balance by nature’s forces. Grasslands and shrublands may become more overgrown and have greater levels of wildland fuels, while providing less palatable food for wildlife. Ponderosa pine forests have increased amounts of shrubs and small trees growing under the larger trees, resulting in the potential for increased fire behavior and “crown” fires. Mixed conifer forests may suffer more frequent crown fires from larger, more severe and more frequent wildfires occurring throughout the Front Range.

The September 1978 Murphy Gulch Fire, which burned 3,300 acres and part of the Ken-Caryl Ranch open space, was considered one of the first significant fires in the Front Range Wildland Urban Interface. A number of other large wildfires have occurred along the Front Range of Colorado since that time and in all seasons, including the June 2002 Hayman Fire, which is still the largest Colorado wildfire at over 138,000 acres.

Wildfires have become less frequent due to increased fire protection and detection, but they threaten more homes and property when they do occur. Large wildfires are becoming more common and more severe throughout the Front Range. The fires of 2012 and 2013 (High Park, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest) served as a notice that large and destructive fires will very likely become the norm along the Front Range. Smaller wildfires have also occurred in the Ken-Caryl Ranch area throughout the year and have threatened the community in various ways, such as the 400-acre Wadsworth Ridge fire of October 2010 and the 31-acre North Hogback Fire in October 2015.

Ken-Caryl Ranch is located in the Wildland Urban Interface and, as such, is exposed to the risk of destructive wildfire. Residents can help reduce their risk from wildfires by utilizing Firewise landscaping and construction materials, year-round maintenance and removal of fuels, and becoming aware of, and involved with, community efforts to prepare for wildfires.

Both the Ken-Caryl Ranch Firewise Board and West Metro Fire provide up-to-date information and community efforts to improve wildfire mitigation. The Firewise Board can be contacted through the Ken-Caryl Ranch House at 303-979-1876. West Metro Fire Station 13 is located at 12613 W. Indore Place or 303-972-3349. The firefighters there welcome any questions and are happy to serve you in your preparedness efforts.

This article appeared in the April 6, 2016 issue of Life at Ken-Caryl.

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