Finding devastation on the familiar slopes of Basalt Mountain

Jerome Osentowski visits a favorite, centuries-old pinion tree on the southern slopes of Basalt Mountain before the Lake Christine Fire.
Jerome Osentowski/courtesy photo

Few people know Basalt Mountain like Jerome Osentowski, who has lived on the sun-drenched southern slopes for 43 years.

He has created an oasis there with five greenhouses, more than 200 varieties of fruits trees and vast edible gardens that are part of his Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute.

Osentowski visited some of his favorite spots on the southeastern edge of the Lake Christine Fire above his house this week — and found devastation.

“That place was gorgeous right out my back door,” he said Wednesday. “That’s all gone now.”

He regularly hiked the trails in the upper reaches of Cedar Drive, beyond the housing development, to decompress and soak in the outdoors — a process called forest bathing. He had a habit of sitting under an ancient, sprawling juniper tree simply to contemplate life. That tree and everything around it is obliterated.

It looks like someone crammed an explosive into the trunk of the tree and blew it up.

“It burnt out the core of it,” Osentowski said. “It just exploded.”

The pinion and juniper trees for acres all around are charred black. Many of them toppled. Soot and ash litter the ground.

Lower on the hillside, the fire ripped through oak brush. Aspen trees that proliferated in a gulch where a spring-fed creek runs were singed in places, burnt to a crisp in others.

Higher on the hillside, some Douglas fir trees look like spent flares. Others were spared altogether.

While numerous people are more familiar with the popular four-wheeling, dirt biking, mountain biking and hiking trails on western Basalt Mountain above Missouri Heights, Osentowski liked the slopes above Fryingpan Valley for the solitude and ecosystem diversity.

“It’s not just a mono-culture of pine,” he said.

Even with his extensive background in permaculture — the practice of building sustainable, resilient and interconnected garden and greenhouse systems by mimicking nature — he’s uncertain how the mountain will recover or how long it will take.

His guess is oak brush will recover where the fire didn’t burn too hot and sterilize the soil. Shrubs such as mountain mahogany and bitter brush are pioneer species on the hillside that are likely candidates to appear first, but pinion and juniper will take centuries to bounce back.

The White River National Forest brought in a Burned Area Emergency Response team Wednesday to start an assessment of the burn area.

The team’s priority is to evaluate watershed conditions to determine the risk from floods and mudslides to life, property and critical natural and cultural resources. If so, they will determine if there are appropriate and effective emergency stabilization steps that can be taken.

A secondary task will be to create a soil burn severity map, which will provide information on how long natural areas will require for recovery.

No structures burned on the upper reaches of Cedar Drive, but it seems nothing short of miraculous. The fire stopped just shy of some homes.

Osentowski’s compound of greenhouses and agricultural buildings is about 1 mile from the eastern edge of the burn area as the crow flies. He was uncertain when he was evacuated on July 4 if the oasis would survive, but he sustained no damage. He feels his property is protected from floods, in part from the creation of swales where vegetation has been planted.

His primary concern is the condition of the spring water he taps in what is now the burn area. The watershed is likely to be affected when rain falls on the soot- and ash-covered slopes.

Meanwhile, life has returned to normal at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute. Fire authorities allowed him to host a two-week workshop as scheduled on July 16. There are 17 students in the workshop, which includes work on creating defensible space around structures.

The permaculture institute will host its next workshop on greenhouses and forest gardens Aug. 11-19.

“As climate change continues to cause unstable and unpredictable weather events, what we are teaching up here at CRMPI is more important than ever,” Osentowski wrote in a recent email. “Resiliency through diversity, climate buffers, water catchment and efficient use, self sufficiency, food security” are among the topics covered. More can be covered at the nonprofit organization’s website at

Osentowski said he will incorporate walks into the burned area as part of his workshops. While he is demoralized about the destruction to the mountainside he knows so well, he’s also accepting of the condition.

“It’s a change,” he said. “It’s a succession.”


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