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After the wildfires

Hikers may be surprised at the renewed forest

Diane White-Crane

— Saying this past summer wasn’t a good hiking season in the Steamboat Springs area is an understatement.

Watching the vast billowing clouds of smoke rise up over several sections of the Routt National Forest, many people worried about what would be left of our beautiful forest and its myriad of wonderful hiking trails after the fires were finished.

For what seemed like most of the summer, two major fires moved along at will north of Steamboat Springs, blackening about 31,000 acres of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and dramatically changing some of the landscape for many years to come.

Fires also broke out in both the Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas.So even if a hiker could have found an open wilderness trail, he or she would have been greatly discouraged by the smoke and haze that filled the air.

As soon as the Forest Service announced the reopening of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness this past Saturday, I quickly hiked up to see what impact the summer’s wildfires had on Mica Basin and Mica Lake one of my family’s favorite hiking destinations.

I feared the worst.

But in spite of several large hillside sections of burned remains, the area is still as spectacular as ever.

Five years ago, in the early hours of Oct. 25, 1997, the stage for much of this summer’s fires in the Routt National Forest was set, when winds in excess of 120 mph blew from the east over the Continental Divide, knocking over more than 4 million trees in a 5-by-30-mile-long area.

Almost 13,000 acres of spruce and fir trees were blown over or snapped off at the trunk in patches of up to 4,000 acres.

In a monumental effort during the summer of 1998, the U.S. Forest Service somehow managed to clear almost all of the hiking trails affected by this natural phenomenon.

For four summers, hikers passed through many of these patches and piles of decaying trees awed and impressed by the power of nature.

Now, three summers of drought conditions and bug infestations in formerly healthy trees turned these huge piles of rotting timber into acres of perfect, ideal fuel for this summer’s Hinman and Burn Ridge fires.

Arriving at the Slavonia trailhead on Saturday morning, I was relieved to discover the fires had burned only what was necessary debris left from the 1997 Blowdown.

It included hillsides full of downed timber, along with the Blowdown debris on the north side of the parking lot.

Forest Service personnel said burning embers from the hillside must have traveled in the air and landed just at this particular spot, since the grass surrounding the cabin remains are as green as ever, even though the cabin was consumed by fire.

Fire experts refer to this phenomenon as “spotting,” where small pockets of fire debris are completely surrounded by healthy, green grass, leading one to wonder how the fire ever reached that particular spot in the first place.

Kent Foster of the U.S. Forest Service said there is a reason for this.

“Live fuel moisture such as healthy grass is not receptive to firebrands. Yet the dead wood is very receptive to these burning, airborne embers,” he said.

In the book “Hiking the ‘Boat,” the area pictured on the cover is now full of many such small sections of fire debris surrounded by healthy green trees and grass.

The cover photo was taken along the trail to Mica Lake in 1991, before the area had been hit by the heavy winds in 1997.The beautiful meadow, after the first major water crossing on the trail up to Mica Lake, is still as beautiful as ever, although the fires have completely burned the surrounding hillsides.

This, too, is a good thing, because these hillsides had also been heavily impacted by the 1997 winds.

Hiking through the woods above the Mica trail meadow, many more fire debris spots are visible.

However, the forest there still remains quite green and viable.

The best surprise, however, comes with reaching Mica Lake itself.The whole bench and its surroundings were completely untouched by the blazes.

Mica Lake itself, a small glacial bowl lying at the head of a glacial valley in a cirque, remains the glorious little 6-acre gem that it was before the fires.

The fires unfortunately heavily impacted another favorite place, Wolverine Basin.

Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said she wants hikers to be cautious.

“The fires have created new hazards for people traveling in the forest, so we’re encouraging them to be extra careful and alert when hiking in the burn areas,” she said.

Pipher said to watch for hazards.

Stump holes are one of them.

Fires can burn a long time in stumps and roots, eventually leaving a hole filled with ash and sometimes hot coal.

The fires have also weakened many trees, either in the root systems or by burning the trunks.When the wind blows, it doesn’t take very much for these snag trees to collapse or to be blown over.

Also, beware of unstable hillsides.

Rocks and logs once supported by trees and vegetation now have a much greater chance of rolling downhill unexpectedly.Be alert and aware of your surroundings.

Also know that rehabilitation work continues in these areas, so be on the lookout for people and equipment.

During the upcoming years, the Mount Zirkel Wilderness should be a perfect place for people to watch in awe as Mother Nature works her magic, healing and regenerating our beloved forests.

With regeneration will come new vegetation, more aspen trees and different species of wildlife. We do well to appreciate this opportunity, because these large fires generally hit a forest only about every 300 years.


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