Lake Christine Fire leaves stark beauty on Basalt Mountain
A handful of people ventured onto Basalt Mountain this past week to find a landscape of contrasts with fresh, white snow blanketing slopes covered with thousands of black tree trunks charred by the Lake Christine Fire.
The trails and roads on the mountain reopened Oct. 12 but snow two days later left the main route a sloppy mess that few people have explored, based on the limited number of bike-tire tracks, footprints and hoof prints.
Midvalley resident Ann Driggers rode her mountain bike up Basalt Mountain on Oct. 14 and was relieved and grateful to find much of the Ditch Trail unscathed. That trail is located low on the mountain, near the primary parking lot. The fire burned right up to an old irrigation ditch that parallels part of the trail and in places spot fires jumped the trail, Driggers said. However, the destruction to the trail itself was minimal, she said.
Driggers said there’s one part of the trail, near a creek crossing, that is particularly beautiful, blanketed in a sea of cone flowers during the summer and early fall.
“I was so happy to see that survive,” she said.
Basalt Mountain Road and Cattle Creek Road have gates across them just past the main parking lot. The U.S. Forest Service does not want vehicles venturing up because heavy equipment is undertaking emergency work to prevent the road from washing out during spring runoff. However, bikers, hikers and equestrians are welcome to use the routes. Be forewarned, the Forest Service says: there are hundreds of burned-out, dead trees called snags that could fall at any time.
That’s not hyperbole. On the Ditch Trail, there are four large evergreens that fell across the trail. They are still alive and their trunks show just a small amount of fire scar. However, their roots burned so they toppled over. The Ditch Trail makes a “V” path from Basalt Mountain Road to Cattle Creek Road. While the section from Basalt Mountain Road has just some spot fire scar along it, most of the terrain along section in the Cattle Creek drainage has extensive damage.
In the bigger picture, while the fire scar is minimal by the parking lot, it is extensive just over 3 miles up the road.
It’s 3.5 miles from the parking lot to the Mill Creek Trailhead via Basalt Mountain Road. Over the first mile, little if any fire damage is evident on the landscape. In the middle mile, there are a handful of places where the fire spotted. In some places patches of oak brush lit up and were chopped down. In other places, small islands of trees burned out but are surrounded by healthy-looking forest.
“The very first thing that struck me was the smell,” Driggers said.
There was an acrid smell hanging in the air Oct. 14, she said. Several inches of snow reduced the odor by Thursday, but the smell of a soggy campfire still filled the air.
On the road, the landscape becomes apocalyptic just below the upper trailhead for the once-popular Mill Creek Trail. That part of the forest used to be dominated by a thick canopy in the sub-alpine fir trees and dense understory of brush. Ridgelines that used to be invisible because the line of sight was only a few feet now have emerged. The contour of the terrain surrounding the Mill Creek Trail is now easy to absorb.
Driggers said she stopped to examine one fallen, burned-out tree trunk and counted 160 rings. When she ventured out, it was snowing, giving the mountain an eerie but also intriguing look.
“There was this starkness,” Driggers said. “Stark beauty, I would say.”
Unfortunately, the Mill Creek Trail itself cannot be ridden in its current condition. It’s littered with fallen tree trunks of all sizes. Numerous snags alongside the trail appear poised to topple.
During a recent trail evaluation, Forest Service personnel counted 60 downed trees along a 1-mile stretch. Winter storms always bring deadfall, so the route will be even more clogged by spring.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Friday the agency is working on a multi-pronged plan to address conditions and rejuvenation on Basalt Mountain. Details will be revealed and discussed closer to spring.
An analysis of soil burn severity by a Forest Service team estimated that roughly half of the Mill Creek Trail had “high severity.” That means “nearly all of pre-fire ground cover consumed; soil structure is less stable or destroyed. Bare soil is susceptible to erosion.”
Another 2 miles up Basalt Mountain Road is the Upper Cattle Creek Trailhead. That’s the start of a longer, more challenging trail that traverses meadows and lava rock fields before plunging downhill to Cattle Creek. While a portion of that trail was outside the burn area, a significant portion of it is considered high-burn severity, according to mapping by the Forest Service. That trailhead was inaccessible Thursday because of snow and mud on the upper road.
Mike Pritchard, director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, said the organization is telling members it’s not practical to try to ride the trail this fall.
“The real problem is the number of trees down,” he said.
RFMBA is engaged in planning with the Forest Service to figure out the best way to address the problem next spring. RFMBA started a trails crew this year and it organized volunteer work outings, but having people spend a significant time in one area of the trail — as opposed to a trail user passing through — presents a danger from falling trees, he said. The Forest Service has trails crews with a high degree of training. RFMBA might contribute funds to allow the federal agency to devote more resources on the Basalt Mountain routes than it otherwise could, Pritchard said.
The Midvalley Trails Committee has also budgeted $30,000 for 2019 for Basalt Mountain work, according to Pritchard.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
Driggers said she thought she would be sad after a post-fire visit to Basalt Mountain, where she frequently rides and hikes.
“I look out my kitchen window and I see Basalt Mountain,” she said. “I feel a connection with it.”
But she is feeling better. Parts of the forest on the mountain were clearly unhealthy, she said. There are already signs that grass and oak brush sprouts are bouncing back.
“Ultimately, it will be a good thing,” Driggers said.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.