Closures, Floods, Erosion: The Wildfire Effect on Trails and Why it Probably Won’t get Better Soon

The number of wildfires negatively impacting mountain bike trails seems to be on the rise, though it's difficult to pinpoint a single cause.
A Colorado high country ride amidst heavy statewide fires in September 2020. Photo: Matt Miller

Last year started off on the wrong foot and kept tripping, left over left over left. Even before coronavirus was a notable threat, the first month of 2020 brought us images of bright orange and red waves ripping through the Australian landscape and then the jungles of the Amazon.

Later in the year, on top of our virus problem, the Western US faced a wild year of wildfires from the summer’s start, and in some places, farther into winter than fires had yet extended. Some trails that had been closed due to the pandemic reopened and were closed again due to fires.

Even if trails remained open and untouched by wildfires, the air quality still made for awful conditions in many parts of the West, deterring mountain bikers and trail users from heading out, in a year when riding felt more necessary than ever.

“The number of large fires and extreme fire behavior we are seeing on our Forests this year is historic,” said Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forest Supervisor Monte Williams in a statement on October 20, a month into autumn. “These temporary closures are necessary to protect the public and our firefighters, and we will keep them in place until conditions improve and we are confident that the risk of new fire starts has decreased. I ask all of our local residents and visitors to take these closures and evacuations seriously to allow our firefighters to focus on the mission of safely suppressing the existing fires.”

The cause of these remarkable conditions that shut down a huge portion of Colorado’s forests? A variable concoction of “severe drought; extremely low fuel moisture conditions; a high occurrence of human-caused wildfires; limited capacity for response due to multiple wildfires; and persistent fire-danger weather conditions with no immediate relief in the forecast.”

Photo: Hannah Morvay

While this explanation covers the reasons why wildfires are much more problematic lately, this can be further simplified into what’s called the ‘fire triangle,‘ which is broken down into three necessary components for a fire; fuel, heat, and air. Fuel is combustible material the fire eats and survives off of; trees, foliage, homes. Air contains oxygen, which is necessary for a fire to burn, or to oxidize. Heat allows for the ignition of fire and the maintenance and spread. If fuel has more heat around it consistently, the fuel will become drier and more easily ignited and burned.

While we are living in a continuously warmer climate, fires are still most commonly started by humans. Even though climate change is creating drier, hotter conditions that encourage wildfire, there is a bigger problem with the increasing rate at which we’re seeing fire.

“People [are] being careless with fire, frankly,” says Dan Beveridge, a fire mitigation specialist with the Colorado State Forest Service. Close to 90% of wildfires in the US are human-triggered. The rest are environmentally triggered, usually by lightning or less commonly, by lava.

Whether it’s a gun shot, a poorly damped campfire, or a stray cigarette butt, human factors still reign supreme by a long shot. If climate change worsened, but humans didn’t camp, hike, visit, or live near wild places, the incidence of wildfire would decline dramatically. But, that’s not a world we want to live in, and one we can’t necessarily live in anymore because of population growth and a growing wildland and urban interface.

Often the best arguments for public land preservation is to allow recreation in hopes that it will foster a greater appreciation for nature, allowing for continued preservation and stewardship. So, humans and nature enthusiasts — including mountain bikers — are continuously caught in a box where we must balance our needs to escape to the wild, minimize our threat to those areas, and then redraw those boundaries while our populations steadily increase.

Closures, floods, and erosion

The Strawberry Peak Trail after the Station Fire in 2010. Photo courtesy of Steve Messer / CORBA.

Los Angeles might illustrate this complexity more than any other area in the US. Southern California’s dry climate typically sees drought conditions, and there’s a large chunk of forest and wildland sitting next to its major cities.

“I can’t remember a time in the last ten years when there weren’t some trails closed due to fires in some areas,” says Steve Messer, the president of CORBA, the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association. In 2009, two firefighters lost their lives in the Station Fire which burned 250 square miles of land and destroyed 200 homes plus countless structures.

Just a year and a half ago, the trails that were impacted by the Station Fire more than ten years ago reopened. The Station Fire – ignited by an arsonist – burned for six weeks, and was ultimately put out by a rainstorm, which resulted in flooding and major damage to trails within the Angeles National Forest (ANF).

“Fires themselves don’t do much damage to the trails, it’s the rain afterwards,” says Messer.

CORBA helped restore dozens of trails within the system, and just as they opened the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail nearly ten years after the Station Fire — on the 50th anniversary of the National Recreation Trail Act — the Woolsey Fire broke out.

“Between those two fires, it’s been non-stop,” says Messer. “And, now we’ve got the Bobcat Fire we’re recovering from and that whole area is still closed including a couple of popular riding areas.”

Last year, CORBA started on the most recent fire-related trail work and cleared about two dozen downed trees from the Gabrielino trail before coronavirus took grip. As we know, the pandemic increased interest in the outdoors, and now there are fewer trails available to the greater LA population because of the fires. Yet despite more people seeking outdoor recreation, the Forest Service hasn’t allowed volunteer trail work in California because of COVID.

“It’s kind of a triple whammy as far as impact to the trail networks,” Messer said when we interviewed him in February.

Photo courtesy of Steve Messer / CORBA

The Forest Service, National Park Service, and California State Parks have been limiting all volunteer activities in the state, and using a phased reopening approach, starting in phase zero, which they have been in since last April.

California hit phase one in December for a few weeks when cases dipped, allowing small groups with authorization to work with social distancing in effect. Back in Phase 0 at the time of our chat, the state needs to see a decline in coronavirus cases for two weeks straight, but if there is any increase then it resets the clock, and means a longer wait until they can get back to trail work. We asked the ANF when they expect this to change, but they did not respond.

Messer, who is also on the board of the California Mountain Biking Coalition, has been keeping track of the status, and it looks like it might change soon with declining cases and flowing vaccines, but it could still be weeks before volunteers can shape trails again.

Typically, their forest fire recovery work consists of rerouting trail, or rebuilding after erosion has washed away trail, building rock retaining walls to protect trails from future damage, and of course removing or opening passageways through burnt, dead, and downed trees.

Like Messer mentioned above, it’s usually the water that falls on top of the burnt soil that causes issues for mountain bike organizations. When soil experiences a high-intensity fire, the dirt can become hydrophobic, resisting water, rather than allowing it to soak in. With burned trees and foliage, there are fewer living organisms to drink moisture, and with both issues, this creates a runway for water drainage, as opposed to a sponge. Soil is the most hydrophobic where extremely hot, searing fires burned directly on top, and up to six inches beneath the burn.

Photo courtesy of Steve Messer / CORBA

Fires burn at different temperatures depending on the fuel sources and density. Usually, low severity fires can be beneficial for environments, burning dead, accumulated fuel sources which offer fresh nutrients for the soil. Fire can open up the forest canopy for more sunlight to reach plants on the forest floor, and it gives life to future trees by opening up cones and spreading seeds. In some cases, fires have rid environments of invasive species that haven’t fully adapted. Sometimes fire has the opposite effect, and invasive species fill in where fires burned native species.

Overland Mountain Bike Club, based in Fort Collins, Colorado has had the same experience with the same issues; downed trees and erosion from water. When the High Park fire burned through the Poudre Canyon in 2012, one of the lasting effects was a seven-year closure of the Young Gulch trail.

OMBA Trail Agents cut a tree burned by the High Park fire to use as a foot bridge on the Hewlett Gulch trail.

The trail reopened relatively quickly after the fire in 2012, but historic rainfall and floods in September 2013 were much more detrimental to access. In a four-day span, more than 18″ of rainwater fell in the hardest hit areas in Colorado, demolishing and closing trails across the Front Range.

“We had it open for about a week and then the September 2013 floods hit and just demolished it,” says Kenny Bearden, the executive director of OMBA. “You couldn’t really walk through it, it was so bad.” Toppled trees covered the mountain sides. The Young Gulch trail with its nearly 60 creek crossings could hardly be traced.

When the Forest Service surveyed the damage on Young Gulch, they were ready to decommission the trail, says Bearden. As one of the few trail options available to Northern Colorado residents up the Poudre Canyon, there was a big demand to keep it open, even if it took years.

“I think they knew people cared about it, they just didn’t have the resources,” says Bearden. “It had been such a popular trail for decades, there was a big push by the public to save it somehow.”

The drainage had changed, altering the flow of the trail. OMBA and the other volunteer groups rerouted much of the trail, effectively cutting the number of stream crossings in half. Since OMBA had a good relationship with their USFS district, and since the agency didn’t have the resources to tackle such a project, the volunteers sought to restore the trail and make it better than before. Sustainability became the new focus of the redesign and they pulled the trail away from the drainage as much as possible to prevent future erosion.

OMBA is still performing trail work related to the fire 2012 High Park fire, clearing hazardous trees on the Young and Hewlett Gulch trails. Because the Forest Service is so often backlogged on needed maintenance, OMBA followed the path of Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association and started their own Trail Agent program, allowing qualified volunteers to take on trail work independent of the club or the Forest Service’s schedule.

OMBA Trail Agent Craig Yonkers taking down a hazard tree on the Hewlett Gulch trail.

The Cameron Peak fire scorched the Poudre Canyon again in the summer of 2020, taking the top spot among Colorado’s largest fires, with almost 210,000 acres burned. The High Park fire was almost 90,000 acres. Bearden and the OMBA volunteers will have to wait until the snow melts this summer to get eyes on which trails have been impacted, but he guesses that it might be 12-14 different trails, maybe 50-60 miles total. They applied for a Colorado Parks and Wildlife state trail grant while the Cameron Peak fire burned, and it doubled in size after the application was submitted.

“It’s a huge amount of work that we have coming up. The application wasn’t for burn recovery, but it’s kind of turned into that.”

The bigger picture

A human-caused fire in February 2021 in Bear Creek Lake Park, Colorado burned about 450 acres. Photo: Hannah Morvay

Volunteer restoration tends to be the case a lot of times, though agencies can have private contractors lead the work, when the fire’s over. Woody Chinburg, a firefighter with over 20 years experience works for Dust Busters, a private firefighting company based out of Oregon. They work with FEMA, and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to help fight fires and mitigate damage based on the agencies’ needs.

“Being private contractors, we see things at their worst state,” says Chinburg. “A lot of times the intended primary attack method is well out the window. So by the time we get there, it’s kind of like, do whatever it takes to stop what’s happening. And then we transition into a repair situation, repairing the lands after the burn.”

Last year, after a fire in Northern California died down, he went to work on a trail system.

“And the whole directive was just put it back as as well as we could put it back. And I mean, they were asking us to fix berms where berms had been beat down, or eliminate berms where berms weren’t supposed to go.” Firefighters often have to build a fire line, digging a berm into the land with shovels, axes, or even bulldozers to break up fuel and the path of a fire. Occasionally the forest-saving berm cuts into a trail. “And directives out there, like on a big campaign fire, which are the ones we end up on frequently, it’s really difficult to…to keep them exactly how the original forest would have intended.”

Chinburg says that on contracts like these, they’re usually working with the Forest Service. If the fire wraps up quickly — and he notes the federal government likes to hire contractors on more quickly containable fires — then they might go to the area for a 2-week tour, “and if the fire is taken care of in seven or eight days, but there’s other effective days, then the rehab and repair is next on the list.” Usually this is done through the USFS’s Burned Area Emergency Response Program. The agency says that they want to treat the area ASAP, before the next possible big storm, for it to be effective.

The USFS receives about 70% of the federal funding for firefighting, with the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs soaking up the rest, according to a study by Headwaters Economics. This is because the agency obviously handles more forest land than other agencies and also because they have taken on the burden of firefighting, historically with the goal of suppressing fire as quickly as possible.

Even though putting out fires as quickly as possibly seems like it would be the most ideal goal, most people now agree that the containment strategy has only led to more severe fires.

“The better we’ve gotten at putting fires out, because we thought for many, many decades that it was the right thing to do, has put us in this position where we have a lot more fuel than we traditionally did,” says Dan Beveridge, the mitigation specialist with CSFS. This is what’s called the fire paradox and leads to much debate about how forest fires are best mitigated.

Mitigation is expensive work at a large scale. Mastication, or chewing up dead trees and fuel sources is pricey, as is thinning. “We’re talking about costs which are in the $1,500-2,500, or even $3,000 an acre range, so that’s really expensive when you think about how big our landscape is,” says Ben Gannon, a post-doctoral researcher with Colorado State University. Gannon spoke of one case where helicopter-assisted thinning cost $6,000 an acre. In contrast, prescribed burns can cost as little as $100 an acre.

Most experts say that prescribed fire is the most cost-effective method of mitigation and it most closely replicates the natural fires that are the most beneficial to the forest when it comes to stimulating new growth. Prescribed fires are also the most controversial and take a considerable amount of planning and caution to implement.

“There is considerable evidence in the scientific literature that prescribed fire is the most effective means of reducing the risk of wildfire disasters and increasing ecosystem resilience across much of the US,” found one study. Prescribed fire has been historically used by American Indian tribes, but fell out of favor in the early 1900s when all fire was seen as a threat to the timber industry, particularly after ravishing fires in the Northwest in 1910. That’s when suppression became the preferred method of containing wildfire.

Photo: Hannah Morvay

Now, even though prescribed burns are favored by experts and are cost-effective, they are seen by some as threatening to homes and human lives, although the incidence of controlled burns becoming uncontrolled remains low.

Crystal Kolden’s study compared the use of prescribed fire in the Southeastern US and a lower incidence of wildfire to the use of prescribed fire in the West. “By contrast, fire managers in the Western US face considerable social barriers to using prescribed fire, including negative public perceptions of risk of escapes and smoke. This high perception of risk has been cemented by the occasional escaped prescribed fire, but it has likely also become entrenched due to the absence of prescribed fire demonstrated here.”

One of those escaped fires was the Lower North Fork fire near Conifer, Colorado. What started as a controlled burn by the CSFS in March of 2012, was swept up by winds and spread across the hills, ending in over two dozen lost homes and three lost lives. The CSFS has not been allowed to conduct prescribed burns since. Incidents like the Lower North Fork fire have made them much more challenging to implement the prescribed burns.

Gannon has studied the cost-effectiveness of preemptive mitigation, like prescribed burning and thinning, versus emergency suppression. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and even though eating our vegetables and exercising regularly goes a long way in preventing disease and illness in humans, fire prevention is not always cheaper than suppression. This research, however, is based on many variables and assumptions, says Gannon.

In a follow-up email after our first conversation he reflected on the dilemma. “Something I failed to mention about proactive mitigation, and why it is sometimes hard to justify, is that it is difficult to predict where fires will burn. Proactive mitigation looks like a great deal in ‘hindsight bias’ studies, where people ask what would have been avoided had we done mitigation in the area that burned. But, as this study suggests, only a small fraction of our mitigation treatments will burn before fuels re-accumulate to hazardous levels.” The study found that less than 7% of the treatment areas they looked at between 1999 and 2012, which included close to 4,000 different fires, were encountered by a subsequent fire.

Gannon also points to the prevalence of a nasty little insect that has contributed to Colorado’s tinderbox landscape. “I can’t not mention the mountain pine beetle,” he says. It’s likely that readers are already aware of the MPB if they’ve ridden in Colorado’s forests and seen the wide strokes of red and purplish trees amongst the otherwise green mountains.

The increase of MPBs in Colorado’s forests is tied to warmer temperatures, and nothing can be done to save a tree when a MPB infests it. The spread is impossible to predict, says CSU research. Controlling and treating the MPB is difficult. Cold temperatures seem to be the most effective but it requires five consecutive days of temperatures under 30°F. The result of the MPB are more large areas of dead trees that are more susceptible to burning.

Managing a new normal

Photo: Hannah Morvay

I asked Woody Chinburg, the firefighter from Oregon, if he felt like firefighting seasons have grown longer. He said he didn’t feel that way, but he can’t speak for everyone. His perspective in the Northwest probably differs from a firefighter’s perspective in Southern California. What needs to change though? The answer goes on for days. He talked about drier, variable seasons, forest management, and logging. Really though, the most simple answer is one that is convoluted through a greater dialogue lately. He didn’t convolute his answer.

“The biggest problem with wildfire, is people starting fires. No question. How many fires are we starting, whether accidental or on purpose?”

A study by Jessica Balch found that human ignition has been the primary cause for extended wildfire seasons. “The vast majority (78%) of lightning-started fires occurred during the summer months, whereas 76% of human-started fires occurred during the spring, fall, and winter months,” though it can vary via ecoregion. Ignition from lightning is more common in the mid-summer months, though there is another large spike of human-caused ignitions around July 4 every year. The human-ignited fires she mentions outside of the summer months are mostly responsible for the lengthier fire seasons we’re having.

Woody’s answer provokes another question though: If necessary for nature, then in what ways is fire bad? Burning trees releasing more carbon into the atmosphere is bad and contributes to an ironic atmospheric feedback loop. Closed hiking and mountain biking trails are bad, especially when there’s nothing else to do. Losing homes is bad. Losing lives to fires is very bad. All have increased due to the growing wildland and urban interface, brought on by increased population and development.

A primary practice of fire suppression has also created thicker forests across the US and the West. Paired with a drier, more unpredictable climate, it makes for a more welcoming environment for fire. Ball that up with more humans on the planet visiting and living near wild places and we have our combustible cocktail. Balch’s study says that the wildland urban interface is expected to double by 2030. Currently, 9% of the total US land mass is categorized as being in a WUI.

After 2020, when wildfires stretched nearly into 2021, it seems like the Western US was at a point where something needed to change drastically, considering the resources and billions of dollars fighting wildfires demands from federal agencies, whose budgets are thin and neglected compared to other departments. The USFS spent half its budget on fighting fires in 2015, compared to 16% of their budget in 1995, and the agency anticipates that share will continue to grow. Insurers are running out of money and denying home coverage to those who live near wildfire-prone areas.

I asked the USFS what the future of forest management and firefighting looks like with 2020 in the rearview, but they did not reply. Like any story that has a largely negative feel to it, I wanted to know how and if things could improve. Ben Gannon, the researcher from CSU had a few more great perspectives on how things might change.

“One positive is that as more of the landscape burns, future fires will tend to encounter lower fuel areas, which should reduce fire severity and may sometimes impede fire spread.” The drawback? “There are different perspectives about this depending on how much you love forests. Continued burning is likely to exacerbate the forest-to-grass and shrub conversions we’re witnessing at lower elevations.”

As far as firefighting approaches, the quick-attack fire suppression strategy likely isn’t dying out anytime soon. It’s tried, true, effective, and often necessary depending on the infrastructure available near a burn.

Photo: Hannah Morvay

Gannon is optimistic that studies on prescribed burning, like the one mentioned above, will show improved results when they are redone in a few years, and hopeful that there will be more opportunities where they can be applied.

“Another mitigation option that some are excited about is letting wildfires burn when the conditions are not extreme. Sort of an unplanned prescribed fire.” After a challenging summer in 2018, the USFS Chief Victoria Christiansen mentioned this kind of approach in a letter of intent regarding wildfires.

Gannon noted that in Colorado, there will “continue to be ebbs and flows in fire activity,” a notion that Woody used to describe his experience with fire seasons year to year in the Northwest. Fires in the early 2000s stand out as much to him as fires of last year.

So, there is some hope. The 2021 fire season hasn’t quite started yet (knock on a damp piece of wood), and this year very well could be another 2020, 2012, or 2000-whatever. But there’s also a chance that it will be a milder year for wildfires. The situation, complex as it may be, with forest and fire management, climate change, and increased ignition patterns can be reduced every year. As mountain bikers, we can all reframe how we think about fires, and more closely consider our actions when we’re in the woods. As individuals, the majority of whom appreciate the nature that we visit and live amongst, it’s about all we can do. Like a freshly burnt forest, every year is a new start.

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