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.
Will watches in awe as the "Get Shit Done" Crew live up to their name (left) Craig Yonkers; always on the hunt for more hazard trees (right)
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.
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 fuelled 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.
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.
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.
Caring about the climate isn’t just for skiers and snowboarders anymore; 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 through your local organization.
We choose to support POW because they work 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 your local climate advocacy group today!
1) Good on ya, builders
2) I want to ride those trails!
3) I've ridden those trails!
4) Climate change isn't real
5) It is real, you dumb
6) No prescribed burning
7) Yeah prescribed burning, you dumb
f*ck headset cable routing
You dumb for having a different opinion than others
They aren't relevant to this article but this is PB after all.
Don't. Let. Go. You've got a reason to live. Don't. Forget. You only get what you give.
One thing I need to say about something like this, the forest in the backyard of where I grew up in the front range was anything BUT healthy. Over stocked in the mixed conifer portions, and way past due for a stand replacing fire in the lodgepole dominant portions (as lodgepoles are adapted for, stand replacing fires, which many people don't know or understand). Mountain pine beetle went rampant well before this fire (2004-2010). My time spent at the Colorado Mountain Campus during my undergrad, we surveyed large swaths of forest that was on its way out due to the MPB invasion. Where the Cameron Peak fire (among other fires) occurred, it was WAY past due for some mother nature clean up. Not saying this isn't a challenge for humans, but it is how lodgepole dominant forests evolved, to live to die by fire.
In our research & during discussions with the USFS we went deep on the forestry and forest fire science behind how and why the fire burnt so quickly. It ended up being beyond the scope of the article, but for those that are interested a quick google search “Cameron peaks fire report” will inundate you with more information than you need. Happy reading.
From a forest perspective, it just gets old and seems like a missed opportunity reading: "what once was healthy forest", which could be either omitted or rephrased just a little to give some better context. People are never going to learn about forest health, if it's ALWAYS healthy just because it's thick with trees... which historically in the western forests, thick forests generally only became that way once we began snuffing out fires well over a century ago. Oh how I could go on about that...
I agree the phrase “the once was a healthy forest” perhaps should read “the once living forest” let me see if I can submit for an edit.
We could go further down the rabbit hole and pose the question - are any forests remaining on earth “healthy”?Obviously we would have to agree on that definition to start with, and if they are “healthy”, they are only as healthy as our understanding of plant biology, which does continually evolve with research.
I’m a big forestry buff over here so I’d be happy to take this conversation into the DMs if you wish to geek out further.
@FreeRadicals: touche, and I full agree with that, really easy to slip down that rabbit hole on what is a healthy forest these days, but this article is not about that. It's about a community coming together for a common good. I apologize about detracting from that, it is a GREAT article and makes me so happy to see people caring for my old stomping grounds.
Just hoping, someday more people will learn that just because you see a dog hair thick forest does not equate to it being healthy.
I really appreciate you taking the time to respond in a proactive and productive way, cheers all!
Unfortunately it is a provincial park with quite a bit of development so it is really hard to do prescribed burns and/or log.
I think that's the complex problem many areas and managers are up against. How do you rejuvenate a forest that previous management has allowed to become dangerous and vulnerable while still being able to hold the support of various user groups.
The USFS is underfunded to truly manage the situation. They lease the land for logging companies, but the loggers do a poor job thinning - they leave the forest floor a mess, as their only goal logging is to make a dollar. The timber here is not as valuable as hardwood, so their methods are not precise and they don't take care to take their time and do it the right way. To reduce wildfires, the management of the forests needs a drastic change in approach.
The budget appropriation request for wildland fire management in fiscal year 2023 is $2.7B up $751M from FY2022. This is better than what it has been, but maybe not as good as it should be? Looking back a few years shows FY2023 $2.7B is less than what was spent in 2017 by $100M.
What is promising is FY2023 outlines an additional $2.2B in funding for a wildfire suppression operations reserve, which appeared to be called "FLAME" back in 2016/2017 when it amounted to $823M and $342M respectively. Perhaps this will better help ensure necessary resources in bad fire seasons.
I would be careful with the comment in your second paragraph as I think it puts unfair blame on loggers and the logging industry, when really a systemic management issue and a lack of public education might be more to blame. How many of these man-made fires are started as a consequence of logging? How does that number compare to the number of fires started by people recreating on USFS land?
This is very difficult to track as the general public aren't likely to fess up to starting a fire, but I would harbour a guess, that it's more of the latter than the former. I don't know specifics regarding US harvesting practices, but have observed many an active cut block around BC and there is lots of fire suppression equipment on hand and any potential fire is likely to get snuffed out quickly. After all, a fire would cut into their profits significantly, and pose a serious danger to valuable equipment.
What's more disturbing to me- as a Canadian who frequently visits the US, is the apparent lack of fire bans in the US. I have been traveling to the US several times a year for the last 7 years and have seen little to no information on fire risks.
In contrast, during the height of fire season in BC there is a sliding scale fire ban that restricts everything from campfires to power tools and even trail work with hand tools to try and mitigate the risk of sparks in the forest. There are several different levels of risk and as conditions get more severe, so do the restrictions. As we move from one phase to the next, local fire departments, trail organizations and the province launch roadside, radio, social media and newspaper campaigns to inform the general public about the fire risks and how to alter one's behaviour when camping, biking, hiking riding moto etc. This isn't a perfect solution, but it's one glaring difference I notice between Canada and the US.
The issue was, for weeks after the clearing had been done, you still had a lot of burnt standing trees that would topple over with the slightest breeze, was f*ckin sketchy out there for a bit.
A sign at the trail head might be a good idea?
We are not discounting the impact that either sports (snow or cycling) have on the environment.
You are lucky that you can ride to your local trails, I think those of us who are fortunate to have that luxury are in the minority, but it doesn't meant that we shouldn't be mindful of the greater impact our sport has on the climate.
We should also bring the growing popularity of lift-assisted bike parks into the climate equation of MTB if we are going to fairly compare ourselves to snow. The heavy machines used to shape Dirt Merchant and Aline are run off dino diesel after all. Would be interesting to compare the energy input and carbon footprint in winter vs summer operations for a resort like Whistler Blackcomb.
This article just wanted to highlight how this fire was unnatural in its size, scale and ferocity due to anthropogenic climate change and what that means for the mountain bike community of Ft. Collins.
Desertification is a stretch, as it geologic time seems like an eternity for mere mortals.
In 2021 world governments subsidized the price of fossil fuels to the tune of $531 billion dollars while those industries (and their executive teams) made off like bandits earning a trillion dollars in profits. That’s $3bn/day!
Don’t worry though, the financial costs of burning fossil fuels to the environment is only $11million/minute so I’m sure these oil companies have enough cash in the bank to bail us all out when the world catches on fire.
DM us if you need some sources for the above.
Isn't Manchin getting sued by a class action of folks in WV because his coal supply company is resulting in them over paying for power? I have a memory of this but I could be mis-remembering & google isn’t providing much beyond WV vs EPA.
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