A lightning strike 10 years ago on July 1 started a massive wildfire at Colorado State University’s Pingree Park which consumed 13 of the 80 buildings on the campus, 1,600 forested acres of combined U.S. Forest Service and university lands and caused $3.2 million in damage. It took 600 firefighters two weeks to put the blaze out.
Ten years later, the forest has recovered with aspen trees that now stand 10-15 feet tall, lodgepole pines 2-3 feet tall and wildflowers blanket the ground.
"The changes are really dramatic," said Bill Bertschy, director of Colorado State’s Pingree Park campus, "What was once a thick pine forest is coming back with many more aspen mixed with pine opening up views and habitat for wildlife."
Wildfire is a natural and often necessary element of a healthy forest ecosystem, especially in a lodgepole pine forest, a fire dependent species. Fire will open the tightly closed lodgepole cones releasing the seed. Following the fire, natural reseeding occurred at Pingree Park creating the thriving new growth today. The campus did clear 24 acres of burned timber in anticipation of trees falling around buildings and activity areas.
Bertschy noted, "Many of the burned trees are now falling from high winter winds, but fortunately due to the prior cutting, the risks to persons and property is greatly diminished."
Future growth of the aspen and pines will continue with the pines crowding out the aspen in the future and the cycle beginning once again.
After the fire in 1994, Colorado State took a strategic four-pronged approach to address the issue of forest fires in Colorado: examining wildfire’s role in forest health; providing information to citizens and officials throughout the state, including education programs for high schools; directing federal grants to property owners for fuels education efforts; and providing more training and equipment for fire departments. The strategy seeks to establish a balance between promoting safety and re-establishing health forests.
"Colorado State University has been a leader nationally in research about and the ecology and impacts of wildfire in the Rocky Mountain region. Since the massive Yellowstone fires in the 1980’s to the most recent fires in Colorado, the university is utilizing its research expertise in looking at the role of fire and ecology, and management practices for future forest health," said Bertschy.
Less than two weeks after the 1994 blaze, Colorado State’s Western Forest Fire Research Center, WESTFIRE, established a research project in Pingree Park to monitor the rebirth of the forest. The project has been maintained by graduate students. The data collected provides valuable information for undergraduate students in the College of Natural Resources forestry program.
The Pingree Park Mountain Campus is located 53 miles northwest of Colorado State’s main campus in Fort Collins. The park plays a crucial role in Colorado’s forestry and natural resources history and development through the courses taught at the mountain location every year.
More than 3,000 visitors come to Pingree Park every year including Elderhostel participants, ECO-Week students from the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, as well as Colorado State natural resource students who receive part of their academic training at the park and participate in numerous multi-national conferences and retreats.