Two Megafires Charred Parts Of Northern Colorado In 2020. The Recovery Will Take Years
More than six months after the final flames of 2020 burned out, signs of damage are still everywhere.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, entire mountain faces are charred black. Thousands of lodgepole pine trees are bent like twigs, frozen in place from when 100 mph winds pushed them over.
Cameron Pass looks like a patchy quilt. Sections of forest remain healthy, while others look like dusty moonscapes. Some areas look like a disturbing cross between the two, with black, twiggy remnants of trees poking out of neon-green grass.
But amid the devastation from two of Colorado’s largest wildfires in history, recovery efforts are emerging.
Officials are making plans to rebuild structures lost to the fires. Scientists are studying the lingering environmental impacts. Fire managers are learning lessons to help in future emergencies. And hundreds of people from across Northern Colorado are volunteering their time to clear debris from trails to get them reopened to the public.
The efforts are only the beginning of what experts say is a complex, yearslong recovery process that follows major wildfires. Some parts of the landscape will never be the same.
A flame-filled year
2020 was the most devastating fire year in Colorado history. Flames ravaged the mountains, burning entire forests and releasing huge clouds of smoke that choked the air over Front Range communities.
The Pine Gulch Fire started off the season on July 31 near Grand Junction. It quickly grew to be the largest in the state’s history, burning 139,000 acres. Not long after, the Cameron Peak and the East Troublesome fires in Northern Colorado both surpassed that size.
Together with dozens of smaller fires, they burned hundreds of buildings and forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes, some for weeks at a time. Two people died.
Each of the fires was exacerbated by hot temperatures, strong winds, overgrown forests, drought and beetle kill. These are all conditions that will persist as the climate warms.
Clearing a pathway to trail recovery
Many of the trails in the Comanche Peak Wilderness and Rawah Wilderness were damaged by the Cameron Peak Fire and subsequently closed.
In a normal year, the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers (PWV) build and repair trails in the area. After the record fire season in 2020, they are focused on clearing trees to make trails accessible to the public again.
The volunteer group includes a lot of retirees. They recruit others to join, like church groups, companies and seasoned hikers.
Ethan Gerrard is an engineer at Nutrien, a Loveland-based fertilizer company. He and his colleagues volunteered for the day.
“Right before the fires started, I came on a three-day camping trip up here. And it looks completely different now, with all the trees burned and fallen over,” he said. “This is a space that I’ve used before, and being able to help clean it up so it’s useable for other people is really rewarding.”
While hiking along the Beaver Creek Trail, Mike Corbin, the chair of PWV, described the tell-tale signs of a mosaic fire: some areas were completely blackened, while others were less affected.
“You see this part of the forest got a light ground burn. I don’t see any trees that died. A few little ones but some of the stuff on the ground burned,” he said. “That’s good because the next time a fire comes through there won’t be as much fuel for it.”
There were spots along the trail that looked like normal forest. But just around the corner, that would change.
“Here we transition from very light burn to what I would call fairly severe. You get worse. But pretty much all the trees are dead. You don't have any vegetation coming up yet,” said Corbin. “And it can transition very quickly. Like here, you know, to the right green, to the left black.”
Each tree that lay across the trail had to be taken out — by hand.
Corbin first scraped the bark off an area along the trunk. Then, volunteers used two-person hand saws on the biggest trees and smaller saws for branches.
“We’ll do over 2,000 trees a year in a normal year,” said Corbin. “This year we’ve done maybe 600 already. We may get 4,000 this year. But that’s our main task this year, we’re not doing our other trail maintenance so much.”
By mid-afternoon, the group had cleared more than 50 trees. Everyone was covered in sweat and ash, but still smiling.
Out of the 20 trails closed in the area, PWV has already opened two this summer. They hope to get at least four more open in the next month.
In Rocky, park staff recently reopened a section of the popular Fern Lake trail. Crews worked for weeks this spring to clear fallen trees, rocks and other debris carried by the East Troublesome Fire.
Hiking the area still comes with risks. A sign at the trailhead warns visitors of burned out stumps, unstable dead trees and spots that may still be smoldering. Exposed nails and rock shards also present hazards.
It’s one of many parts of Rocky’s sprawling trail system that will need ongoing mitigation work, said Doug Parker, the park’s trails program supervisor. He estimates at least 15% of Rocky’s trails were damaged during last year’s fire season.
“I’ve worked on ice storms in Arkansas. I’ve worked on floods here. And I would say that this takes the cake as far as severity of trail damage,” he said.
The East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires burned 17 bridges in the park, so staff have to rebuild them in a warehouse, then fly bridges into remote sections of the park via helicopter. After that, teams hike out and finish installing them in person.
Rocky has called in reinforcements from local conservation corps and other areas of the park service to help finish the job, including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Most of the work this summer will focus on reopening front country areas that are more popular with the public, Parker said.
“We are very busy,” Parker said. “We’re trying our best to get it open for visitors’ use, make it safe for use and to protect the resources that we have.”
As crews venture out, they’re also noticing changes to the ecosystem. Aspen tree shoots are sprouting up from the blackened soil. Wildflowers are blooming where they haven’t before. Waterfalls and streams are carving new pathways through the earth.
‘Keeping the hillside on the hillside’
When scientists started examining the impacts to Rocky’s ecosystem this past winter, they expected the worst. But, beneath the surface of the charred landscape, they found a surprise.
“We actually saw more low and moderate burn severity in the soils,” said Koren Nydick, the park’s chief of resource stewardship. “Even though it burned, it still has roots in it. There’s root structure and that’s really important to natural recovery.”
First to come back will be herbaceous plants with non-woody stems, like wild roses and ferns, Nydick said. Then, aspen and conifer trees will move in over the coming years.
Scientists have several guesses as to why the soil’s health came out relatively unscathed.
When fire burns in one spot for a longer time, it cooks the soil. It burns up roots and seeds in the ground and changes its chemical makeup.
But because the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires moved through the park so quickly, they didn’t have as much time to burn everything underneath the surface.
The park was bone dry when the fires burned through. As a result, the heat didn’t generate a lot of steam, which would have damaged nutrients in the soil. Surprise snowfall also helped cool things off.
“These are just hypotheses,” Nydick said. “So we will have to do more research to get a better understanding of those factors.”
Park officials remain concerned about the potential for landslides and flooding in burned areas, so they’ve installed new sensors and early-detection systems to monitor the watershed.
One of those areas is the Green Mountain trail on the park’s west side, where thousands of downed, burned out trees cover the mountainside. The area looks like a wasteland, but the logs won’t be removed.
Parts of the ground are more unstable than before the fires. The ground coverage from dead trees actually helps “keep the hillside on the hillside,” Nydick said.
“Drainage is one area we have the most concern about,” she said. “Especially for flooding during a high intensity rain event.”
Wildfire ash has already seeped into waterways outside the park, affecting wildlife. Researchers have recorded large fish die-offs in areas east of Rocky, but populations are expected to bounce back within several years.
The park currently has no plans for re-seeding, a process that involves dropping large amounts of seeds into burned areas to promote regrowth and prevent runoff.
The land will recover on its own, Nydick said. But it could look much different when it eventually grows back.
“The seedlings that are able to start coming up from seed, they're going to experience a different climate (than the forest before),” she said. “It will depend. Are we going to get another droughty summer? What's going to happen in the next five, 10 years with climate change on top of natural variability? That's going to, I think, affect how well the current vegetation does here, whether it's able to come back as a lodgepole pine forest or if we have other species move in.”
Rebuilding what was lost
Another recovery priority is redesigning and rebuilding employee housing on the park’s west side. The Green Mountain housing area lost seven cabins and a historic lodge for workers to the East Troublesome Fire.
The area is now just rows of burned out chimneys. One of the biggest losses was a building called the Onahu Lodge.
Parker, Rocky’s trails program supervisor, said this was a special place for employees because it had “amazing views” and living rooms for staff to gather in. Current and retired park staff are still grappling with the fact that it’s totally gone.
“I think that was something that they held most dear,” Parker said. “This housing was a special place for sure.”
Rebuilding plans are still coming together. Since the fire was contained, the National Park Service has assessed the damage and put together a proposal to build new employee housing at a different location.
The current plan is to build new employee housing closer to other housing developments within the park, said Kyle Patterson, Rocky’s head of communications. Discussions are also underway about how to best clean up the site and memorialize the structures that were lost.
“These were historic,” Patterson said. “We don't want to just level everything and pretend it never happened.”
The timeline and cost are still up in the air, though. Labor and building material supply shortages that are affecting much of the country could delay the process.
Meanwhile, the park remains short-staffed this summer because many workers couldn’t find affordable housing close enough to the park. Some of them had to find rentals all the way in Winter Park, which is an hour-long commute.
At least 15 seasonal workers resigned from their posts this year because they couldn’t find housing, Patterson said.
“Finding housing for seasonals in the Grand County area has been extremely difficult,” she said.
Defending against future fronts
As a warm and dry climate becomes the new norm, more severe wildfires are in store for Colorado and the West. Some of the recovery efforts, in addition to repairing past damage, also aim to prevent future destruction.
While crucial for a pleasant hiking experience, a well-maintained trail system is also vital for containing wildfires. Firefighters frequently use trails as fire breaks — good places to defend and try to stop the front. Preserving and restoring trails gives firefighters access and a starting point if there’s a fire in that area in the future.
The same goes for roads. Firefighters need to be able to easily travel to keep up with fast-moving flames.
Thinning out areas of overgrown forest is also important. In 2009, forest firefighters conducted a prescribed burn in Upper Beaver Meadows in Rocky. It thinned out the forest dramatically, making it less likely to burn.
That came in handy last year, as first responders used the area as a “catcher’s mitt” to help stop the fire from reaching Estes Park. Unexpected foggy weather also helped slow it down.
The prescribed burn near Upper Beaver Meadows was one piece of roughly 20 years of forest thinning work done on the park’s eastern boundary leading up to the East Troublesome Fire.
Michael Lewelling, Rocky’s fire management officer, said last year’s fire season made the ongoing work feel more urgent.
“(East Troublesome) had the recipe of being a major, major disaster,” he said. “I fully expected the fire to go into Estes Park, but our fuel treatments were instrumental in protecting structures, as well as allowing fire engines and the fire crews to get in there and be ready to catch the fire.”
This summer, crews are planning to start thinning hundreds more acres of forest within Rocky. Projects are planned in forested parts of Deer Mountain, around Lily Lake and near the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.
Lewelling and local fire authorities are also studying computer simulations of future extreme wildfires. They’re using those to update evacuation plans for Estes Park.
“What we're seeing today with the extreme fire behavior — whole towns burning. We need to think bigger and more extreme,” Lewelling said. “The No. 1 goal is managing or reducing the risk to people, and that means employees and the public.”