Wilderness Wanderings: How bad was the wind storm?
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
How bad was the Sept. 8 windstorm that blew over thousands, if not millions, of trees in our region?
Pretty bad if your home or vehicle suffered damage. But how bad was it in our forests?
It was probably the most damaging in and around the Routt National Forest in recent years but “tiny” compared to the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown, according to Steve McCone, recreation operations, Hahns Peak Bears Ears District of the U.S. Forest Service.
“The one in ’97 was huge,” McCone remembers.
The wind event on Oct. 25, 1997, blew down an estimated four million trees. A total of 20,000 acres of pine, spruce and fir trees were flattened.
“It took us three years to clear out trails and roads,” McCone said.
Reports at the time described what looked like “blast zones” with large areas of flattened trees. And there were impenetrable walls of fallen timber 20 to 30 feet high.
“Big Creek Valley was really hit. It was flattened,” described McCone, adding that the Lost Dog area was even worse.
The September storm hit roads and trails pretty hard, McCone said, and it was “kind of concentrated in spots.” And most of the affected roads and trails have already been cleared by U.S. Forest Service and volunteer crews in the weeks since, with the exception of Forest Service Road 508.
Yet, there were similarities.
Winds during both events blew from the east, an anomaly in our region.
However, the ’97 winds were more consistent at 120 miles per hour, whereas the highest winds from the more recent storm ranged in the 50s with the exception of 114 mph at the top of Christie Peak at Steamboat Resort.
Another similarity was trapped hunters as both windstorms occurred during hunting season. Hunters found themselves, their pack stock and vehicles trapped with trails and roads blocked by miles of fallen trees.
Perk Heid of Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch was trapped in the aftermath of the 1997 event in Diamond Park, fortunately at a friend’s cabin, before he and friends cut their way out.
“’97 was way worse,” Heid remembers. “’97 was devastating. There were Class 3 hurricane force winds, 130 to 150 mph winds for about eight hours.”
Heid was filmed in a recount of the event for a “Storm Stories” episode titled “Colorado Blowdown,” which aired on the Weather Channel.
McCone helped rescue other trapped hunters in 1997, starting two or three days after the storm. He and others from the Forest Service cut their way up Lost Dog Road.
With the amount of devastation, “It was pretty lucky nobody got killed then,” McCone said.
The recent post-Labor Day storm trapped hunters with a camper in California Park. Timber and trail crews combined with chainsaws to clear Forest Service Road 49, so they could get out.
Other hunters and their pack animals were trapped up on the Continental Divide in Encampment Meadow, deep in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
The Storm Peak Fire Module, which includes Forest Service personnel from the Yampa and Parks districts and other locals, was called upon to rescue those hunters.
Eleven sawyers, including Izzy Padilla, a member of the Yampa Ranger District trail crew, converged near Hog Park.
“I was never called to do something like that before,” Padilla said.
Using five crosscut saws, they worked four hours, clearing an estimated 40 to 50 downed trees to open West Fork Trail 1153, which leads into Encampment Meadow from the northwest.
“We walked in four miles … trees were stacked 6 feet high — really thick,” Padilla said.
It turns out the hunters, who were from Minnesota, had another two days of food. Given the shorter distance, they could have even hiked out on their own, except they would have had to leave their pack animals behind.
One of the men was mildly surprised, remembers Padilla.
“He didn’t think anyone would get there so fast.”
Bob Korch is trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness, which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. For more information, visit FriendsofWilderness.com.
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