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What Does it Take to Rehabilitate the High Park Burn Zone?

Grace Hood

Full containment of the 87,500 acre High Park Fire closed one chapter for firefighters, but opened what’s expected to be an even longer one for restoration crews.

A $24 million High Park Fire Burned Area Emergency Response [.pdf] plan covers everything from roads to trails to treatments for watersheds.

Perhaps the most visible sign of work right now is along Highway 14. The Colorado Department of Transportation has already been tasked with clearing mudslides and clogged culverts. Near the intersection of Stove Prairie Road and Highway 14 is a large muddy pit. Rainfall over parts of the High Park burn area last week created 5 times the amount of runoff that this drainage was designed for. Debris quickly clogged it and created a muddy mess for CDOT crews to clean up.

Credit Grace Hood/KUNC
A giant mud pit requires work from CDOT near Stove Prairie Road and Highway 14.

“This one did close the highway for a while because we didn’t want folks to drive through here,” says Colorado Department of Transportation Spokesperson Ashley Mohr.  “But we’re expecting more with every rain.”

Erosion and mudslides are a new reality in this heavily traveled canyon. And that means more delays for regulars like Jerry Atkin and his wife Carol. They own a cabin in the area, and have already been on a 10-mile detour due to a mudslide.

Credit Grace Hood
Signs of life are starting to emerge on charred land in Young Gulch

“I’m hoping that the canyon will fix itself naturally before too long. But in certain areas it will be decades I’m sure,” says Jerry.

While roads are a concern, so are trails. Many remain closed right now including Young Gulch.

Kristy Wumkes with the U.S. Forest Service led a group of journalists on a tour this week to discuss the area’s rehabilitation plan, which includes trail repair, tree removal and mulching.

The skies were clear on this day, but there’s concern anytime it clouds up.

“Is there going to be a rain event that will cause a lot of debris to come down? Is it going to not only wipe out the trail, but is there potential that there will be enough debris flow—enough flooding—that it could perhaps endanger somebody’s life?”

The view along Young Gulch trail illustrates some of the challenges treating a wildfire burn zone. There are small patches of burned trees surrounded by green ones. Then entire hillsides are charred. The erratic path of the fire will require experts to walk this trail many times to fine tune their plan. The good news is that some burned areas have already started to regrow.

“Looking at it when I first came out, you wonder how is anything going to grow on this. And here we are 2 or 3 weeks later and nature is finding a way,” she says.

…including a patch of poison ivy.

Efforts on Non-Federal Lands

While U.S. Forest Service officials are close to starting work, efforts on non-federal and private lands may take a while longer. Part of the hang-up has to do with getting permission. The other is connected to funding,according to Todd Boldt with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is coordinating this effort.

“The one issue that we have from our agency standpoint is we don’t have a big pot of money sitting aside,” he says.

The NRCS will cover 75 percent of treatment costs. But it first needs a sponsoring local agency to agree to pay the remaining 25 percent, which could be a city or county government. Then it can make a formal request to federal officials for funding.

“It’s a very complicated situation with all the different partners involved with this, and there are things that need to be worked out,” he says. “So we’re working towards that and we’re making great progress on that.”

While approval won’t come overnight, Boldt hopes it will be timely enough that he can coordinate watershed treatments that have multiple private and federal owners. He says his program will conduct seeding, areal mulching and build debris racks to keep washed out materials from clogging culverts. But he says they’re only effective to a certain point. They’re not going to do much if several inches of rain fall within hours.

“Some of these treatments just aren’t going to withstand that,” he says. “So you plan for the best and hope everything works out in these situations.”

While many projects are slated for this summer, some may not be completed until next year. But what’s ultimately needed is time.

Experts estimate that even after all efforts are wrapped up, the High Park burn zone will still have another 3-5 years of elevated risk for flood and debris flows when it rains.

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