As we made our way up the Swamp Creek Trail, flanked by the Overland Mountain Bike Association’s trail-building team aptly known as the “Get Shit Done Crew,” our surroundings went from known to unknown as we entered the Cameron Peak Fire. In the hardest hit areas, the once healthy forest was reduced to an undulating sea of telephone poles, blackened and scaled by the flames. The ground turned into a foreign surface more like lunar dust than Earth’s soil. A thick layer of ash replaced the organic carpet, three inches deep in places, rocks surrounded by halos of fine flakes, an indication that they had been superheated to over 2000 degrees Celsius. There was hardly a trace of life in the burnt scar that stretched beyond the horizon, the air still smelling distinctly of coal, as if your neighbor were barbecuing. Having never been in such an environment, Mark and I were overwhelmed 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 looking for other dangerous trees (right)
For eight hours, our team of seven worked to clear over 200 downed trees and a staggering number of dangerous trees – standing or leaning dead trees that pose a risk to trail users. The loud hum of the chainsaws echoed through the now barren hills, interrupted only during the refuelling. We hardly talked before lunch. Between the headsets and the two-stroke engines, conversation was pointless. But it’s unlikely we would have chatted much if we could have, as all the energy was expended grappling with large segments of burnt logs a safe distance from the trail as the sawyers felled and felled trees with samurai precision and grace. Although the temperatures were just above freezing, we were soaked in sweat and grime, the ash clinging to our damp clothes and skin. This was just the beginning of the dizzying amount of work needed before Swamp Creek could be safely reopened for public use.
Incredibly, just a few days later, the job was complete. With the help of Specialized Soil Searching, Fat Tire, evo Denver and OMBA, we mobilized 65 people to contribute a collective 325 hours of labor in a day to make Swamp Creek approximately 95% passable and ready for safe public access. The trail officially opened for non-motorized use on September 21, 2021. For Mark and I, these two days of work on Swamp Creek were a first-hand taste of a different kind of trail maintenance: fire restoration work. which are becoming all too common in Colorado’s Front Range. As wildfire seasons grow in length and strength across the West Coast of North America, we are now living with the direct effects of climate change.
Between August 13 and December 2, 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire burned 208,913 acres, its largest footprint of all five boroughs of New York City. Burning for 112 days, nearly a third of 2020, it is the largest wildfire in Colorado history, the origin of which is still under investigation. Regardless of the ignition, the conditions that created this catastrophe are clear. According to the U.S. Forest Service Summary Report, which provides a retrospective analysis of the fire, it indicates that extreme temperatures, low humidity, rugged terrain, high winds, and beetle-infested drought-stricken forests fueled the rapid growth and intensity. Simply put, the consequences of climate change have created the perfect evil 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 land than all the fires recorded by the state between 1960 and 2000. Forty years of fires, in one year. The estimated financial impacts of the 2020 fires total more than a billion dollars. From an ecological point of view, the repercussions will be felt for decades. If we don’t act on the climate now, these staggering effects will only get worse. How long can we afford to be complacent? The argument is no longer biased, 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 of trail maintenance backlog, overwhelming fire damage only exacerbating the situation. However, in classic American “can-do” fashion, folks rose to the occasion. The Overland Mountain Bike Association, along with the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, Backcountry Horsemen of America and others, contributed more than 20,000 hours to the Canyon Lakes Ranger District in 2021, ranking second in the nation for most volunteer hours of any USFS Ranger District. Despite this colossal volunteer effort and paid USFS crews, there still isn’t enough maintenance horsepower to tackle all the work that needs to be done.
Trail conditions on Swamp Creek have deteriorated dramatically in 2022. Bearden believes the necessary repairs are beyond the capacity of volunteer crews, so mechanized equipment will need to be brought in. That is, once the ground has stabilized. Extreme erosion events are responsible for the rapid collapse of Swamp Creek trails, a direct result of the Cameron Peaks fire. Vegetation regrowth, which stabilizes the soil, is slower in severely burned areas, creating a longer period of vulnerability to landslides, which already pose a threat to trail users. On 16 July 2022, two hikers were tragically killed near Glen Haven within the Cameron Peak burn scar. Two years after igniting, the Cameron Peak Fire continues to threaten public health and safety in the Canyon Lakes area.