By Liz Harper, American Forests
When a wildfire ignited north of Durango, Colorado on June 1, it was just one more addition to the widespread collection of fires burning across the southwest at the time. But, in what is becoming an eerily familiar story, strong winds and low humidity, paired with an abundance of fuel, allowed the fire to grow immensely. Dubbed the 416 fire, it grew to more than 54,000 acres, earning it a spot on the list of Colorado’s top ten largest fires.
Two of American Forests’ National Champion trees were caught in the reach of the massive fire: one a 165.5-foot tall blue spruce located near the Dutch Creek flats and the other a 180.58-foot blue spruce near Hermosa Creek, both of which are located within the San Juan National Forest.
Local U.S. Forest Service employees hoped that the former, shorter blue spruce would remain unscathed, especially since the open meadow where it stood could have been skipped over by the fire. Instead, the powerful blaze seared through the area near the confluence of Hermosa and Dutch creeks, destroying the champion blue spruce in the process. The second, taller tree, though also located in the burn area, was able to escape damage by virtue of its location in a sheltered valley, which protected it from the flames.
The blue spruce that burned was nominated as a National Champion in 2014. Before it was burned in the fire, the tree had a crown spread of 32.5 feet and a circumference of more than 12 feet. Using our tree-measuring formula and keeping in mind the tree is 165.5 feet tall, the spruce’s dimensions gave it 323 points.
Comparatively, the 180.58-foot spruce that survived was measured as having a circumference of 11 feet 5 inches and a 23.25-foot crown spread, which is considered rather narrow. Nominated in 2016, it was also tallied as deserving 323 points.
Blue spruce are not particularly fire-resistant trees, in part due to a combination of thin bark and shallow roots. They also tend to keep their lower branches for longer than other, more fire-resistant trees, which allows surface fires to reach the tree’s dense crown. The surviving champion just happened to be in a good place to weather this particular wildfire.
Both trees were impressive in their own right, but when it comes to wildfires they had the same thing working against them: a rapidly changing climate that is perfect for fire. Colorado sees hundreds or even thousands of destructive wildfires each year, as do other states, particularly in the West. Many trees are not lucky enough to survive the blazes, especially if they don’t naturally have fire-resistant properties. Across the West, as temperatures increase and the amount of rainfall and snowpack decreases, the hot, dry conditions that allow wildfires to flourish are becoming more and more common.
Such conditions increase the urgency with which America’s forests need to be protected and restored. Though wildfire can be good for forests under the right conditions, the changing climate and a history of fire suppression has made it all too easy for wildfires to grow explosively and become so destructive that they threaten plants, animals and people.
You can help us protect other trees like these Champions, and other trees that were in the path of the 416 fire. Donate now to help us protect already existing forests and establish new ones, which will lead to a healthier, more resilient planet.