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A Fire Season to Remember - The Free Radicals Help Rebuild Trail in Colorado

Feb 21, 2023 at 9:16
by The Free Radicals  


Words: 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.


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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.


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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.

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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 fuelled rapid growth and intensity. Simply put, consequences of climate change created the malevolent perfect recipe.


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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.


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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.

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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 $18K and prompted an additional donation of $10K from Denver Channel 7 News.

bigquotes“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?

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!

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Author Info:
FreeRadicals avatar

Member since Mar 3, 2016
24 articles

60 Comments
  • 44 7
 Anticipating the range of comments:
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
Cool etc etc.
  • 11 1
 You're likely not wrong.
  • 4 2
 @FreeRadicals: I want to be clear, my views are 1 and 2 of the above options. Y'all did great work out there and the pictures and the writeup are great.
  • 17 2
 Don't forget:
eMTB bad
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.
  • 5 0
 Based on the title alone, I expected one of these:

Don't. Let. Go. You've got a reason to live. Don't. Forget. You only get what you give.
  • 8 0
 Looks like a (work) Session.
  • 2 0
 Ill go with a Large #1 and #2. And a #7 but just the entrée without the side of insult. Smile
  • 37 0
 These forest fires could be avoided if only we raked the forest floor. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE.
  • 3 0
 Also to add; well done to the Free Radicals, and other groups involved in bringing these trails back to life.
  • 4 0
 I always rake the forest floors! It's essential!
  • 5 1
 Yes! We will stop forest fires by raking the woods and eradicate climate change by eating insects.
  • 21 0
 Love seeing people getting out there to help out like that! I am all about rehab work like this and am usually out helping on my weekends where I live.
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.
  • 10 0
 Great background information here! Thanks for pointing this out.

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.
  • 5 0
 @FreeRadicals: fair enough, and certainly can appreciate that. Again, great article and efforts through and through don't want to down play that at all. Grateful for the work and effort!
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...
  • 5 0
 @RBalicious: your comment wasn’t interpreted in a negative way. Science is all about thoughtful critique.

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.
  • 6 2
 @FreeRadicals: Before you make that edit, you might consider that the forest is still living, just in a post-disturbance stage. Whether it returns to a conifer dominated landscape is another question, but I don’t think it’s accurate to call it not living now. Maybe the longtime undistirbed forest?
  • 9 0
 @dreamlink87: you’re hired as our editorial intern if you want? We can pay you in Fat Tire beer and Specialized Tires.
  • 5 2
 @dreamlink87: the "longtime undisturbed forest" would also be a misnomer, as the large scale mountain pine beetle invasion IS a disturbance. It killed millions of acres of trees, just like a large scale blowdown event, fire, avalanche, etc...

@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. Smile
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!
  • 2 0
 @RBalicious: Ah, good point! Completely glossed over the bark beetles.
  • 4 0
 While we like to think of forests as timeless monoliths unmoved until these catastrophic events strike, reality is that the forest (indeed all "nature" that feels so permanent) is in a state of constant change.
  • 3 0
 @BiNARYBiKE: well said! We as humans do need to have more respect and curious wonder for the plant life we share this planet with. Many plant species live for hundreds of years (likely thousands if we would quit f*cking with them) and they can’t MOVE! When it gets cold they don’t go inside & turn the heat up, or put on a sweater, they just keep on living & in turn keep us unthankful SOBs alive.
  • 3 0
 @FreeRadicals: is there any idea when the last time it burned was and what the historical average would have been? We have a little 'island in the sky' in southeast Alberta with the Cypress Hills that had it's last fire in 1885 but the lodgepole burn frequency is 70-100 years. So modern fire suppression has led to it being a minimum of about 40 years beyond burning. And it shows!

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.
  • 3 0
 As a CSU student who watched this fire turn the sky black and red for days, I agree. Went camping many times before the fire up Cameron Pass and the Poudre Canyon and it was obvious the forest had been absolutely decimated by pine beetles and drought. I worry that considering how hot and aggressively this inferno burned, the forests of the area simply won't recover. It is obvious that the High Park fire was caused by many of the same conditions and over a decade later it seems unlikely any of that burn scar will actually become forest again. These long overdue fires seem to burn with such intensity they simply leave swaths of ashy dirt ripe for desertification.
  • 1 0
 @ryanandrewrogers: see my other reply to your comment to b6graham, desertification is quite the stretch... yes many fires are burning very hot with fuel loading, but many of the fires I have worked on as part of a BAER team that looked nuked, are coming back. Geologic time that Mother Nature actually functions on seems like an eternity to us mortals...
  • 6 0
 I'm a trail agent for OMBA. My favorite trail (Donner Pass) was destroyed by this fire. This remains a touchy subject for me to this day.
  • 2 1
 The state of devastation from that fire is breathtaking and the knock on effects are very terrifying. Thanks for your work as a trail agent, your help is badly needed!
  • 1 0
 Is Donner gone for good? Had plans to ride that trail like 2 weeks before the fire started and pushed it off. Such a bummer
  • 3 0
 @kmg0: Donner pass trail can easily be divided into two segments: north and south. The north segment has historically been open to motos along with bikes, hikers and horses. The south segment was not open to motos (only bikes, hikers and horses). The north segment is being rebuilt - scheduled for this year. As mentioned in the article there was a large grant awarded specifically for rebuilding that portion of trail. I understand a profesional trail builder is being employed to work on it. It is a joint effort between the moto enthusiasts and OMBA (and maybe others are involved, too). So that's really cool and I'm ecstatic about this. The south segment (which happened to be my favorite part) remains unplanned for. I keep thinking I'm gonna hike in there and work on it but every time I get serious about it, it will rain and then there are landslides. That land needs time to stabilize. Maybe this summer it will have been enough time (?) and I'll start working on the south end.
  • 3 0
 NCTR applied for and recieved a $287k CPW grant to rebuild Donner and Lookout. Work to start this Spring/Summer.
  • 3 0
 It's not just climate advocacy that will change the current picture of wildfires in the US - its also policy on how our federal agencies manage federal land. As the climate does change, and as summers become more extreme with true "Fire" seasons, we have to advocate for better funding for land management. As someone who lives where the federal government is the primary land manager, I watch each year as the region around my home burns because of man-made fires.

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.
  • 2 0
 I'm no expert on US Department policy and politics, but a quick review of the 2022 and 2023 USFS Budget Reviews do show that short-term change is afoot in USFS funding, which makes sense given the current political climate.

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.
  • 2 0
 Our local trail network got smashed by fire a few years ago.

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?
  • 2 0
 We spent the first day with the GSD crew and OMBA clearing over 200 hazard trees along the trail’s corridor to try and mitigate these risks. Was a hell of a lot of work and scary being out there in the wind.
  • 3 2
 Can someone please explain the statement "Caring about the climate isn't just for skiers and snowboarders anymore." I'm not seeing how mountain bikers should be aspiring to be like the cool kids, whose winter sports have a massive effect on local ecosystems and a Sasquatch level carbon footprint.
  • 5 1
 It comes from a perception that the snow industry is further ahead than MTB/cycling when talking about climate change. They also have a more obvious connection & cost of climate disarray than mtb & other sports. It’s hard to ski/snowboard when there is a poor snow year. But less snow doesn’t mean more MTB. This article was written to show that we as mountain bikers do stand to loose access to trails from climate change.

We are not discounting the impact that either sports (snow or cycling) have on the environment.
  • 6 1
 Concern for climate change is more trendy in the snowsports industry right now, largely because snowsports are so weather dependent and because of the efforts of snowboarder Jeremy Jones and his organization POW (Protect our Winters). Lest you get too smug about your superior sport, there are many of us in snowsports who spend all or most of our time enjoying the snow through purely human-powered means. And may I humbly submit that if any of us were really that worried about our footprint, the first thing to go might be our completely unnecessary leisure activity of rolling or sliding down mountains on highly engineered products (likely) manufactured overseas and designed to be replaced in just a few years. Smile
  • 1 0
 @BiNARYBiKE: It was the "just for skiers and snowboarders" that pushed a button. It is true that a bicycle is an engineered product, but when i want to use that product, i walk downstairs, wheel it outside and start pedaling as there are trails two minutes away, so no climate footprint for access. Also, when I ride, the dirt is ready made while a pretty big portion of the surface that boarders and skiers use is man made with giant machines.
  • 1 0
 @codypup: That's cool you can hit the trails straight from home. I'm sure that's not the norm. And yes ski resorts are an issue. But again, as a backcountry snowboarder, my snowboarding is much more like MTB than it is resort skiing.
  • 2 0
 @codypup: The line you're referring to was meant to be read as a bit tongue&cheek, so I'm happy it wound you up a little. And, as I mentioned earlier, it was more a comment on the level of discussion in the snow sports industry around climate change when compared to the general absence of any discussion in the MTB world, until very recently.

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.
  • 4 0
 Watching robust men skillfully dropping hazard trees, a proud part of our Camp Fortune Trail Crew heritage.
  • 1 0
 The past five years seem like they've been especially bad. Smoke all summer and there's no where to escape it as it stretches all the way from the Pacific to the Rockies and from Mexico to Northern Canada. Even if it's not burning near you there's likely smoke that's blowing in from somewhere else, it's constant now.
  • 1 2
 OMBA is doing incredible and difficult work to make trails better in the area. Make no mistake, the reason the fire was so damaging is because it started in a sea of dead, rust colored, pines killed by bark beetles. The article focus should have stayed on the volunteers that are making it happen instead of pushing the superfluous climate agenda, blah, blah, blah.
  • 4 3
 in before everyone comments and doesn't understand forest fires are natural and necessary events
  • 14 2
 Don’t disagree with you, some trees have even evolved to be fire retardant or sow their seeds after extreme temperatures.

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.
  • 2 0
 Well, if we had understood forest fires were natural and necessary events a century ago rather than suppressing every single wildfire prior to 1974 these wouldn't be such dramatic burns. Coupled with climate change and a pine beetle infestation, the forest fires we generally get in Colorado now burn unnaturally hot and aggressively. I didn't live in Foco yet during the 2012 High Park fire, but the burn scar of that fire is still apparent today. The forest did not recover. The area only has a few dead pine trees, the dirt has turned to ash, and only high desert grasses remain. It is textbook desertification caused by unnatural yet inevitable forest fires.
  • 2 0
 @ryanandrewrogers: for the most part you are on the right track with your understanding of some of the natural processes. However there are quite a few good examples of lodgepole forests that have come back after high intensity fires, some great examples are the Yellowstone fires of 1988. At just shy of 800,000 acres, it covered an area 4 time that of the Cameron Peak fire, and a lot if not most have a rejuvenated ecosystem. Check the link below for some more info.

serc.carleton.edu/NZFires/megafires/Yellowstone.html

Desertification is a stretch, as it geologic time seems like an eternity for mere mortals.
  • 2 0
 Thanks for sharing, great post PB!
  • 9 8
 Incoming climate change isn't real comments in 3...2...1
  • 2 0
 Howdy Gowdy
  • 1 0
 More stories like this with photos like this please.
  • 1 0
 Should have got.some motos in there
  • 2 0
 Big ups boys!
  • 1 0
 Thank you for this. It is appreciated:
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