A Fire Season for the Ages

A Fire Season for the Ages 150 150 The Free Radicals

As we hiked up Swamp Creek Trail, flanked by Overland Mountain Bike Association’s crack trail-building team, fittingly known as the “Get Shit Done Crew” our surroundings transitioned from known to unknown when we entered the Cameron Peak Fire burn. In the worst-affected areas, the once healthy forest was reduced to a rolling sea of telephone poles, blackened and scaled by flames. The ground transformed into a foreign surface more closely resembling moon-dust than terrestrial soil. A thick layer of ash replaced the organic mat, three inches deep in places, rocks surrounded with halos of thin flakes—an indication they had been super-heated to over 2000 degrees centigrade. There was hardly any evidence of life left in the burn scar that stretched beyond the horizon, the air still smelling distinctly of charcoal, like your neighbour was BBQing. Having never been in such a setting, Mark and I were overcome by the scale and severity of the destruction. 

For eight hours, our group of seven worked to clear over 200 downed trees and a staggering number of hazard trees—standing or hanging dead trees posing a risk to trail users. The loud buzzing of chainsaws echoed through the now-barren hills, interrupted only when refueling. We hardly spoke before lunch. Between the earmuffs and two-stroke engines, conversation was futile. But, it’s unlikely we would have chatted much if we could, as all energy was consumed wrestling large segments of burnt logs a safe distance away from the trail as the sawyers felled and bucked trees with the precision and grace of samurai. Despite temperatures hovering just above freezing, we were drenched in sweat and filthy with dirt, ash sticking to our damp clothes and skin. This was just the beginning of the dizzying amount of work that was necessary before Swamp Creek could be safely re-opened for public use.

Incredibly, only a few days later, the work was complete. With the help of Specialized Soil Searching, Fat Tire, evo Denver, and OMBA, we mobilized 65 people to contribute 325 collective hours of labor in one day to get Swamp Creek about 95% rideable and ready for safe public access. The trail officially opened for non-motorized use on September 21st, 2021. For Mark and I, these two days working on Swamp Creek were a first-hand glimpse of a different type of trail maintenance—fire restoration work that’s becoming far too common in Colorado’s Front Range. As the length and strength of fire seasons increase across North America’s West Coast we are now living with the direct effects of climate change.

A Historical Fire Season

Between August 13th and December 2nd of 2020, the Cameron Peak fire burned 208,913 acres, its footprint greater in size than all five boroughs of New York City. Burning for 112 days—nearly one third of 2020—it is the largest wildfire in Colorado history, the origin of which is still under investigation. Regardless of ignition, the conditions which created this catastrophe are clear. According to the US Forest Service Summary Report, which provides a retrospective analysis of the fire, indicates that extreme temperatures, low humidity, rough terrain, high winds, and drought-stricken forests ridden with beetle kill fueled rapid growth and intensity. Simply put, consequences of climate change created the malevolent perfect recipe.

Zooming out, the scale of destruction in Colorado during 2020 is even more staggering, with 665,454 acres burned in one year. That’s more acreage than all wildfires on state record between 1960 and 2000. Forty years worth of fires, in one year. Estimated financial impacts from the 2020 fires total over one billion dollars. Ecologically, the repercussions will be felt for decades. If we don’t act on climate now, these staggering effects will only get worse. How long can we afford to be complacent? The argument is no longer a partisan one, but one of survival.

Where Do We Go From Here?

According to Matthew Cowan, Wilderness and Trails Manager for the USDA Forest Service, Canyon Lakes Ranger District, fire recovery is the name of the game when it comes to trail maintenance in the region. Prior to 2020, the district was already facing a decade’s worth of backlog on trail maintenance, overwhelming fire damage only exacerbating the situation. However, in classic American “can-do” fashion, the people rose to the occasion. Overland Mountain Bike Association, along with the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, the Backcountry Horsemen of America and others, have contributed over 20,000 hours in the Canyon Lakes Ranger District in 2021, ranking it second in the nation for most volunteer hours of any USFS Ranger District. Despite this colossal volunteer effort, and the paid crews of the USFS, there still isn’t enough maintenance power to address all of the work that needs to be done.

OMBA has been working hard to help reduce the burden of maintenance on the USFS. In 2020 they received a $45,000 grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to kickstart their Trail Agent program. The funds were invested in tools, equipment and training to enhance the effectiveness of 40 members of their volunteer workforce. With 29 volunteers currently enrolled in the program the trail work has already begun. Since the start of 2021 Trail Agents have; volunteered over 5200 hours, cleared nearly 3300 hazard trees, along 6.3 miles of trail, constructed 25 bridges, built ~1,120 drains across 32 different trails. You can visit the OMBA website HERE for more information or to register for the Trail Agents Program.

Last year, a bike giveaway organized in collaboration with Fat Tire and OMBA both paid tribute to Fat Tire’s 30th Anniversary and raised money for OMBA’s fire restoration efforts. Thanks to generous donations, we raised over $15K and prompted an additional donation of $10K from Denver Channel 7 News.

The funds raised through the bike giveaway were a huge help to OMBA’s efforts. The Cameron Peak Fire impacted over 120 miles of trails, with nearly 50 of those miles being open to bikes. While Swamp Creek got much of the initial volunteer focus, multiple others still require similar or greater levels of repair. Roaring Creek, Donner Pass & Lookout Mountain trails will all receive major work over the next 1-2 years. These funds have allowed us to conduct complete trail assessments, plan and design reroutes, gain necessary environmental approvals, and to search for additional funding to cover full reconstruction costs, which are likely to be upwards of $500,000 for these 3 trails alone.

     – Kenny Bearden OMBA Executive Director

The Current Situation

Trail conditions on Swamp Creek have deteriorated dramatically in 2022. Bearden feels that necessary repairs are beyond the capacity of volunteer crews, thus mechanized equipment will need to be brought in. That is, once the ground stabilizes. Extreme erosion events are responsible for the rapid collapse of Swamp Creek trails—a direct consequence of the Cameron Peaks Fire. Vegetation regrowth, which stabilizes soil, is slower in severely burnt areas, creating a longer period of vulnerability to landslides, which are already a threat to trail users. On July 16th, 2022, two hikers were tragically killed near Glen Haven within the Cameron Peak burn scar. Two years after ignition, the Cameron Peak fire still threatens public health and safety in the Canyon Lakes area.

What Can We Do?

As mountain bikers, regardless of where you live, the biggest impact we can make to protect our trails is by getting involved in climate advocacy. One group that is leading the charge in this area is Protect Our Winters. They strive to be better and show us that our voices do matter and collectively, they will go further and be heard louder. Caring about the climate isn’t just for skiers and snowboarders anymore, if you enjoy the outdoors you should become a POW member. 

Protect Our Winters works hard to advance policies that will reduce emissions, add renewable energy to the grid and create sustainable jobs for the workforce transition, all to protect the places we live and love from a warming planet. Protect our trails from future fires, consider joining POW today.