Mulch pile growing at Black Forest facility

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Few people like the sight, smell and crunch of mulch as much Ruth Ann Steel. But even she has had her fill of watching the decaying material pile up in front of her this summer.

Steel oversees the Black Forest Slash-Mulch Program, a wildfire and mitigation recycling program co-sponsored by the El Paso County Environmental Division, Colorado Forestry Association and Black Forest Fire Department.

For 20 years she has coordinated efforts at the one-and-a-half acre facility, located along Herring Road. But never before has she seen so much slashing and mulching taking place in such a short period of time.

“We are almost overwhelmed,” Steel said. “I have never seen such a big mulch pile. But it’s a good problem to have.”

Things are piling up due to the effect from last month’s massive Black Forest Fire that destroyed more than 500 homes and burned more than 14,000 acres. Homeowners and land owners in the area are taking what’s left of their charred trees and heading to Steel’s facility to have the material slashed into mulch.

Steel was concerned that the charred wood might be hazardous to the environment, so she sent some samples a laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for testing. She should know the results this week.

“There’s no difference in color between ordinary mulch and charred mulch once it goes through the machine,” Steel said. “The fire went through so fast it left only a very thin coating of char.

“Carbon is good for plants, so my guess is that this is probably okay for use and for the environment. I think it will be beneficial. I’ve been testing it myself in my outdoor greenhouse and my plants and things are flourishing.”

The slash-mulch facility is open to El Paso and Teller County residents. But Steel said folks can come from any county and they won’t be turned away.

“We don’t check license plates,” she said.

The facility is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 7:30 p.m., Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. About 20 volunteers help run and maintain the facility.

“Two Saturdays ago we had a line of 20 loads that swung down north on Herring and curled around on Shoup,” Steel said. “We took in 1,000 pickup loads that day.”

El Paso County workers have been trucking loads of mulch to Flying W Ranch to help in the mitigation and restoration from damage caused by the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012. That fire destroyed 347 homes in the Mountain Shadows area and burned more than 18,000 acres.

“They’re trying to help with the erosion caused by the Waldo Canyon Fire,” Steel said.

More recently, Steel has been in contact with the Colorado Springs office of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The NRCS has expressed interest in using mulch from Steel’s facility to help with the Waldo Canyon Fire rehabilitation assistance program. Two major floods have occurred this month near Highway 24 as a result of heavy rain run-off from the Waldo Canyon burn scar.