With summer on our doorstep and more than a year of COVID quarantines behind us, it’s no surprise that Fort Collins residents are chomping at the bit to get back outside and enjoy some of the amazing recreation activities available to us on the front range. These opportunities provided a break from being housebound for many of us last year, but that escape wasn’t available for long as fires raged throughout nearby Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park. The Cameron Peak Fire, the largest in Colorado history, burned more than two hundred thousand acres and led to widespread forest closures. Charred trees are now banded with spray paint to mark them as needing to be removed and help remind visitors of the recent blaze. Serving as a more positive visual reminder of what happened last year are the frequently seen handmade signs, “Thank You Firefighters.”
Half a year past the fire finally being declared as 100% contained, many natural areas have been reopened for public use. But, not all of them. Many high elevation areas are still snow-packed and the forest service has yet to be able to assess the damages left by the fire. Others are simply considered too dangerous, with burned trees waiting to fall and lose limbs, damaged topsoil with little or no vegetation to keep it in place, and massive holes left from burned out root systems.
The immediately visible damage left by the fire does not represent the only danger faced by visitors to the Poudre Canyon this summer. Those who intend to spend their time in, on, or near the river need to be extra aware. With so much vegetation now burned away the ever-present risk of flash flooding downriver is substantially increased as snowmelt and precipitation runoff is now more free to rush downhill to join the Poudre. Even experienced river goers should check their intended routes before taking off on a float or paddle. New obstacles hide in the river as large branches and sometimes entire trees have been washed down and become stuck on rocks and under bridges.
The fire has left an enormous amount of work to be done to preserve and rehabilitate both private and public lands. Clearing debris, reseeding, mulching and refilling the firelines dug to help contain the blaze are some of the most apparent first tasks but certainly not easily accomplished and not to be done without careful consideration being taken first.
One of the many organizations taking a part in recovery efforts is Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed or, CPRW, a non-profit organization based in Fort Collins and focused on protecting the ecological health of the river. In relation to the currently faced challenges this largely means erosion control. Working with private landowners and public land managers alike the team has already begun placing hay barriers to minimize sediment runoff and slow waterflow in key areas. They’re also planning to mulch around 10-15 thousand acres of burned land to help reduce the same issues. With all of that burn area to consider, a large part of the process so far has been figuring out where to spend time and resources.
“You’re looking for areas of major impact,” says Daniel Bowker, CPRW’s Forest and Fire Project Manager, noting the importance of surveying burned areas and gathering data before taking recovery steps.
Another major participant in the fire recovery efforts is the Forest Service. As soon as the fire was contained experts were sent out to take stock of the damage, a task that was initially hampered by the winter weather that had already set in. Still, data collection is key in understanding the scope of damage and determining what measures need to be taken to ensure the best possible outcome. With hundreds of miles of trail and road within the national forest’s portion of the burn scar, the process takes time. A large closure area is still in place but the forest service asks for patience as they work diligently to whittle that down bit by bit. Volunteer trail crews are waiting and ready to chip in and they’re hoping to have more trails open by the end of summer and the service has already managed to reopen most of the camping areas in the forest, even though much of the forest surrounding them remains closed.
“We really do ask people to respect those closures,” Reghan Cloudman, a public affairs specialist with the forest service told us, “not only for their safety, but so that the land can recover.”
Full regeneration of the forest will obviously take years but even how long it will take to reopen some recreational areas is as of yet unclear. With nearly a third of the Roosevelt National Forest burned and several popular areas severely damaged, time is going to be an important part of recovery. Looking back to the 2012 High Park Fire we can gain a hint of what we may be in store for. CPRW just wrapped up the last of their High Park Fire recovery efforts in 2018 and although it is growing back the scar left behind from that fire is still clearly visible nearly a decade later.
This summer as we all wait patiently to re-enter our prized local wilderness areas, the people working to restore it encourage us to get creative and make sure we’re interacting with the available spaces safely. Check for closure updates and weather reports before going out, be willing to go a little further and help avoid overcrowding popular trailheads and a currently smaller usable area and, if you must have a fire, have water ready and make sure it is fully out and cool to the touch before leaving it unattended.
To donate to the fire recovery funds or add your name to the volunteer lists you can visit CPRW’s website at poudrewatershed.org
Closure maps and condition updates can be found on the Forest Services page at fs.usda.gov/arp