There was a whisper of hope. Maybe there would be a little bit of green. Maybe the aerial photos from September captured the wrong tree.
But hope faded as the arborists, foresters and scientists reached the blackened grove at the heart of the 54,000-acre, 416 fire, near the confluence of Hermosa Creek and Dutch Creek on Halloween.
A 163-foot Douglas fir and a 166-foot blue spruce had lived through many fires in their nearly 500 years in the Hermosa Creek drainage about 20 miles north of Durango. But the prized trees, two of the largest in Colorado, didn’t survive the 416.
“The radiant heat, it just charred everything. It was fascinating to see. The fire didn’t consume, but it just got so hot,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, a 30-year forester with the San Juan National Forest who a few days ago confirmed the loss.
Photos from a helicopter tour of the burn zone in September had indicated the champion trees could be lost. The group of forest managers assessing the impact of the 416 fire to determine where they might focus reforestation work hiked into the remote area last week hoping that the aerial photos missed something.
The blue spruce, which is on the American Forests’ national register as one of only nine nationally recognized trees in Colorado, with a trunk circumference of nearly 12 1/2 feet and a canopy that spread an average of 33 feet, was tucked between two springs on the banks of Dutch Creek. It was surrounded by green.
“Nothing was blackened. No indication that the fire had gone through there,” Fitzgerald said.
But high up in the monster spruce’s branches, the flames had jumped from tree to tree, killing with leaf-searing heat.
The Douglas fir — nominated as a state champion in 2014, with a circumference of 17 feet and an average crown spread of 53 feet known locally as the “Outfitter Tree” — was charred black, burned from bottom to top.
The fire hopped around, Fitzgerald said. There 50- to 100-acre patches of burned forest and then acres of untouched forest and meadow. She worked the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire outside Durango and said that fire had more high-severity burn zones than the 416.
The two natural trophies were among several champion trees — three blue spruce, the Douglas fir, a ponderosa pine and southwestern white pines — in the San Juan National Forest above the Animas River. Champions are scored on three criteria: diameter, height and the average span of their canopies.
The deep soil and ample moisture in the Hermosa Creek drainage lends itself to large, deeply rooted trees, which are protected in deep ravines, Fitzgerald said. The surviving champions — two blue spruce, the second-tier ponderosa pine and a Southwestern white pine — suffered little or no damage, she said.
The 416 Fire started June 1 and grew quickly. The cause is still under investigation. Without much winter snow or spring rain, the region was dry. High winds buffeted the flames.
“It was just so hot … burning in a very hot, dry time. These trees were already stressed and they just couldn’t handle it,” Fitzgerald said. “We were just amazed how much of it was a crown fire. It got into the crowns and the winds were just howling. We saw a scorched canopy.”
The Colorado Tree Coalition’s Champion Tree Program has a database of more than 700 trees across the state. That champion tree list dates back to the 1960s.
Once a year, the coalition’s longtime coordinator of the champion tree list, Neal Bamesberger, confirms the statistics of nominated trees and adds anywhere from 10 to 15 new trees to the tally. The nominations come from arborists, foresters, outfitters, hikers and, of course, tree lovers. The champions list becomes a sort-of treasure map for Colorado’s best trees.
“That part of Colorado just has some really good growing conditions, elevation and moisturewise, produce some really big conifer trees. There were quite a number of state and national champs up there,” Bamesberger said. “We are saddened they got burned up. But there are potentially some other big trees that could be champions up in that area. As times goes by and the Forest Service lets people go back up there again, there might be some other champions we find.”
Everyone who started out on the hike last week to visit the grand trees along Hermosa and Dutch creeks was braced for a sad day, Fitzgerald said.
“But once we got in there, it wasn’t as depressing as we thought it would be,” said Fitzgerald, describing fields of fresh green shoots emerging from the seared landscape and countless buds on surviving trees. “It’s fascinating to see the effects of fire and nature doing its thing. There was green everywhere, just going crazy with the nutrients being released and the rains we’ve had.”