FORT COLLINS -- The High Park fire has displaced thousands of residents and destroyed the homes of 257 families.But amid the 87,250 acres charred in the Poudre, Rist, Redstone and Buckhorn Canyons, is the habitat homes of deer, elk, birds, squirrels, rabbits, bear and other wildlife.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists expect some fatalities, particularly for smaller mammals that cannot run as fast and birds that are still in the nest, but do not know the extent of the deaths associated with the still-burning wildfire.

In the long run, however, these animals will benefit from the effects of the fire on their habitat. For fish, it is another story.The long- and short-term effects of a wildfire pollute waterways, clog gills, reduce habitat and essentially kill fish.Immediately, slurry pollutes fish habitat because of the amount used, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
"Iced tea is perfectly safe, but if I drop 40,000 gallons of it in the creek, it's going to kill fish," he said.

Firefighting officials do their best to avoid dropping it in areas that can affect streams, but some of the red retardant does make it into the fish habitat, said Ken Kehmeier, senior aquatic biologist with Parks and Wildlife.

Bison adjacent to forest fire

The long-term effects on fish habitat will be much greater and last for many years. The flames burn away grasses, trees and vegetation that would normally stop debris from washing into waterways and leave behind soot and ash that rain will carry into the Poudre River, the Little South Fork of the Poudre and Buckhorn Creek.

Meanwhile, the earlier Hewlett Gulch wildfire will affect the North Fork of the Poudre.The silt and debris will fill up some areas of prime habitat, harm spawning gravels and even shallow the deep pools in which fish survive over the winter, Kehmeier said. Experts will work to reduce erosion with vegetation, sediment retainer pools and other measures, but the fish populations of the river and streams will suffer and could take many years of stocking and habitat rehabilitation to reach pre-fire levels.

The 2002 Hayman fire -- the largest in Colorado history, though the High Park fire is creeping up on acres and cost and has surpassed Hayman in homes lost -- resulted in enough sediment and ash in the South Platte River to kill 70 percent of the fish population, according to Kehmeier. In the intervening decade, wildlife and water experts have worked together to stock fish, regulate water flows to benefit habitat and repair the fire damage. "We're just starting to see some re-population of fish," Kehmeier said.

Even though the High Park fire is still burning, Burn Area Emergency Response teams have begun looking at the landscape and situation and ways to prevent much of the ash from swirling into waterways with the first rains.The sooner the work starts after the fire, the better the result for the fish, Kehmeier said.

For now, the fire is still actively burning in many areas and thousands of residents remain evacuated from their homes in the Poudre, Redstone, Rist and Buckhorn Canyons. Those flames destroying homes, devastating lives and torching dry grasses and trees, will in coming years benefit the habitat homes for wildlife.

For deer, elk, moose and other big game, the trees will grow back less dense, providing more tasty grasses and forbes, which makes it a healthier habitat. And for bears, the regenerated bushes will produce more berries, chokecherries, acorns and other morsels."Younger plants are healthier and produce more forage," Hampton said.