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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

When A Wildfire Ends, The Work To Protect Water Is Just Getting Started

Alex Hager
Workers help attach bulging nets full of mulch to waiting helicopters, which then drop the payload on areas burned by the Cameron Peak Fire. The mulch helps stabilize charred soil, keeping debris from flowing into the nearby river.

There’s an eerie stillness inside a wildfire burn scar. The ground, once lush with life, is a gray mat of ashy soil. There are no leaves or needles to rustle in the breeze. The trees are little more than blackened toothpicks, reduced to their skeletons.

But in the Cameron Peak burn scar, the faint hum of a whirring helicopter echoes for miles off the canyon walls.

It’s been almost exactly a year since the Cameron Peak Fire tore through the foothills outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, on its way to becoming the largest fire in state history. Now, restoration efforts are underway. About 1 million people rely on water moving through this canyon, and one of the most effective ways to protect the area’s watershed uses these helicopters. Instead of scooping up water to drop on flames, pilots dip low and pick up bulging nets full of wood mulch to dump on the charred hillside.

Alex Hager / KUNC
In the past decade, Randy Gustafson has seen two major fires in the watershed that feeds Greeley. One was the largest in Colorado history. “I see this as continuing until we have nothing left to burn,” he said.

Randy Gustafson, water resource administrator for the City of Greeley, looks on as a helicopter hovers near the ground, rumbling loudly over a pile of mulch bigger than a house. Then, it’s off as quickly as it came, zipping back and forth into the burn scar with heaving payloads in tow.

“I’m kind of used to it, and still,” he said, “the kid in you comes out watching this.”

Even though Greeley is a two-hour drive away from this “aerial mulching” operation in Poudre Canyon, this is where the city’s water comes from. Snowmelt and rain make their way down from the foothills into the Cache la Poudre River before that water is piped over to the city. But Gustafson said a charred slope is slick like a frying pan. Water will run off of it, carrying dirt, ash and other debris into that water supply. So his team has to stabilize the hillside with mulch.

“I look at the Poudre as a living organism,” Gustafson said. “How do you keep it functional and operational and make it produce good, clean water for everybody down below?”

Alex Hager / KUNC
These golden shards of wood are dropped from a helicopter onto areas of burned soil. They hold dirt, ash and debris in place so they aren’t swept into the water supply by runoff.
Alex Hager / KUNC
A helicopter pilot dips low to pick up a net full of mulch, which he then drops within the burn scar. It costs $87 per minute to keep these helicopters in the air.

Gustafson's team is just one part of the city’s strategy to keep the water clean. Another effort is underway above Chambers Lake, less than a mile from where the fire began. Here, fire debris threatens to cause harmful algae blooms in the reservoir. So big bundles of spongy wood shavings, held together by biodegradable nets, are laid out on the hillside.

“They form a baffle,” Gustafson said. “They stop the debris, soil, ash, and keep it from coming down into the reservoir.”

On a visit to the site, Gustafson shows how the baffles are successfully holding back sludgy piles of gray dirt in one of the most severely burned parts of forest.

“This makes it worth it,” he said. “This makes what we’re doing worth it. This is a microscopic portion of what we have. It stopped the bleeding. This gets me amped up.”

In the grand scheme of things, though, these efforts could be little more than a Band-Aid. The expensive and time-consuming mulching work can only cover a fraction of the burn’s sprawling footprint. And more are likely on the way.

Alex Hager / KUNC
Dropping water levels have left rings of ashy residue around Chambers Lake, where the Cameron Peak Fire started. The reservoir is partially protected by bundles of wood shavings on the hillside that catch sludgy dirt and ash before it can trickle into the water.
Alex Hager / KUNC
This hillside above Chambers Lake shows the remnants of intense burning. Trees are left as little more than blackened toothpicks, and the ground is an ashy moonscape.

“These megafires are unfortunately not going to be going anywhere anytime soon,” said Hally Strevey, director of the Coalition for the Poudre River watershed. We’re trying not to lose hope. There are plenty of things we can still do, working together collaboratively.”

That includes her organization’s precautionary forest management in areas prone to burning. The fact it’s carried out by a watershed group just further emphasizes how deeply water and fire are connected. Even after a fire is put out, it takes a lot of work to keep the water clean.

But restoration projects like the one in Poudre Canyon are not cheap. Keeping just one helicopter in the air costs $87 per minute. Greeley’s deputy water director, Adam Jokerst, says the high costs are worth it for two reasons.

“One is to protect the public,” he said. “Mulching and other erosion control structures reduce flooding and protect life and property. And the second reason is water quality. How much is clean, pure mountain water worth?”

Jokerst said Greeley gets the best “bang for its buck” from aerial mulching, but they might not have enough money to cover as many acres as they’d like to.

Alex Hager / KUNC
A helicopter carries its payload of mulch towards the burn scar. A pair of choppers zips back and forth for hours each day, covering thousands of acres of charred forest.

“What’s most critical now is lack of funding. We’re spending roughly $300,000 a day. We go through money very quickly,” he said.

The money spent on recovery work is also a precautionary measure against purification costs that could be incurred if ash finds its way into the water supply.

“If we don’t do this mitigation work,” said Jen Petrzelka, Greeley’s water right’s manager, “we will see increased water quality issues that create increased costs because we need more chemicals. That could be reflected on your bill. But by doing this work, we are doing our best to keep our ratepayers’ bills steady and not see any increases.”

With a long list of tasks to protect more of the watershed, Jokerst said they could use more help from state and federal infrastructure spending – which would then be matched by city funding. He would also like to see more permanent funds set aside for this type of work. Randy Gustafson would too, especially since wildfires are getting stronger and more frequent.

“In the last 10 years, I’ve had two major fires and both of them are the most severe fires we’ve had,” Gustafson said. “And I see this as continuing until we have nothing left to burn.”

Greeley’s water team says restoration work will carry into the next few years, but because of the size and severity of the burn, it may never truly be the same as it was before the fire.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River basin, produced by KUNC in northern Colorado, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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