Cameron Peak Fire assessment contains sobering news for watershed, recreation

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Two assessments conducted by Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests officials offered a sobering look into the devastation the Cameron Peak Fire left on Larimer County’s landscape and recreational sites.

The Burned Area Emergency Response studies were released Dec. 17 as part of the initial fire recovery process.

While the Cameron Peak Fire had a fire perimeter that enclosed nearly 209,000 acres, the impacts on the landscape by the largest wildfire in Colorado history varied widely, ranging from swaths that went unscathed to areas that were severely burned.

The survey showed an estimated 36% of the area within the Cameron Peak Fire perimeter suffered high (6%) or moderate (30%) soil burn severity. That indicates an increased risk of erosion and flooding caused by the soil being less able to absorb moisture, along with a lack of vegetation to absorb water and roots to stabilize the soil. 

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Another 44% of the area suffered low burn severity and 20% was unburned. 

The assessment said determining soil hydrophobicity, or the ability to repel water, was hampered by snowfall during the assessments. However, it estimated 55% of the burn area could contain water-repellant soil.

The assessment said there is a 90% to 100% chance that water quality would be impacted by post-fire ash and sediment-laden runoff, nutrient loading and potential debris flows within the first few years following the fire.

Options to reduce the impacts to stream flows, soil erosion and debris flows are limited due to the nature of the burn and slope characteristics, the assessment noted. It stated treatment recommendations should focus on minimizing life/safety threats and damage to property through road and trail closures, trail stabilization, campground treatments and warning signs.

Burnt trees in the burn scar of the Cameron Peak Fire cover the mountainside outside Rustic, Colo. on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

Given all the recreational sites in or near the burn area, the assessment said the consequences for potential impacts on life and safety are “major.”

At one point, about 1.5 million acres of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest and all of Rocky Mountain National Park were closed due the wildfire. Some of those areas have reopened.

The assessment said while some areas will recover over the next several years, the impact on other areas area likely will be felt for a decade or longer.

Where it burned hottest

Soil burn severity is the result of fire progression and intensity. The longer the fire remains in an area, the higher the likelihood of high and moderate soil burn impacts. Areas burned during large runs from the wind-driven fire generally suffered lower soil burn severities due to the fire moving more through the tree canopy than on the ground.

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The assessment’s soil burn severity map shows the area around the starting point on the west side of the fire near Chambers Lake suffered high soil burn severities. Other high soil severity burn areas occurred north of the Colorado State University Mountain Campus east into the Buckhorn Road area and in the northern section of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Thompson Zone of the East Troublesome Fire that burned over the Continental Divide to near Estes Park burned mostly in the low to moderate category.

Most of the fire’s rapid growth was driven by high winds usually preceding precipitation events, mostly snow. The map shows the area to the east of the fire’s initial starting point suffered low soil burn severities during such an event.

Burn scars from the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, cover trees at Jacks Gulch Campground, located along the Pingree Park Road south of the Poudre River, near Rustic, Colo. on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.

Campgrounds at high risk

The assessment found that campgrounds along the Poudre River within and downstream from the burn area face low to moderate risk of flooding and it is unlikely that flooding would impact public safety.

However, several campgrounds pose a risk from falling trees, according to the assessment. The Roosevelt National Forest is in the process of evaluating its recreational sites and won’t know until this spring or summer what sites may open. Another assessment is scheduled to take place in spring.

Jacks Gulch Campground, which received the most damage of any campground, is rated as very high risk for hazard trees. The fire destroyed or damaged restrooms, fencing, picnic tables, signs and the pavilion as well as trees at the popular campground along Pingree Park Road.

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Many of the other campgrounds received little or no damage, including Chambers Lake, which was about 1.5 miles from the fire’s starting point.

Other campgrounds and trailheads in the very high risk category include Tom Bennett Campground, Beaver Creek Trailhead, Corral Creek Trailhead, Dunraven Trailhead, Green Ridge/Lost Lake Trailhead, Bellaire Lake Campground, Donner Pass/Ballard Road Trailhead and Emmaline Lake Trailhead.

Trails at high risk

The assessment said there were about 122 miles of hiking trails within the burned area, of which about one-third, or 40 miles, received high or very high risk ratings.

Trails or trail segments that received those ratings include the Upper and Lower Dadd Gulch, Flowers, Zimmerman, Browns Lake, Big South, Little Beaver, Little Fish, Roaring Creek, Chambers Lake, Blue Lake, Blue Lake Spur, Jacks Gulch Campground Loop, Fish Creek, North Fork, Emmaline Lake, Beaver Creek and Comanche Lake.

Forest service roads at high risk

There are roughly 358 miles of forest service roads within the fire perimeter, of which 52 miles were deemed at high or very high risk. Those forest service roads include 139, 350, 191, 129, 132, 153, 154, 344 and 345.

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Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.