Report: Soil damage, erosion risk greater on north side of Lake Christine Fire | AspenTimes.com

Report: Soil damage, erosion risk greater on north side of Lake Christine Fire

The Lake Christine Fire burned hotter in the northern portion of the 12,588-acre blaze, so it caused more damage to the soil and presents a greater risk of erosion, flooding and debris flow, according to an updated report by the U.S. Forest Service.

A Burned Area Emergency Response team was able to assess conditions in the southern portion of the burn area last month but fieldwork in the northern portion was delayed until firefighting eased.

The latest assessment shows that 72 percent of the northern portion experienced moderate to high soil burn severity.

"Our assessment found that a larger percentage of soil within this part of the fire area received prolonged exposure to intense heat," Steve Hunter, BAER coordinator for the White River National Forest, said in a statement. "The northern part of the burned area, which consists primarily of conifer vegetation type, held high temperatures of heat for longer duration and damaged soils in that area."

A map of the soil-burn severity shows much of the terrain along Basalt Mountain Road was classified as moderate. The road is a popular traveling route and provides access to single-track trails.

Mill Creek, a short but popular route for mountain bikers, was hit hard. More than half of the terrain was considered high in burn severity with another 40 percent considered moderate, and roughly 10 percent in low or unburned.

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Another single-track route known as the Big Loop crosses Basalt Mountain east from the road and intersects with a trail that plunges into Upper Cattle Creek drainage. Much of that trail terrain suffered high burn severity although a portion was outside the eastern fire perimeter.

The burn-severity assessment was made using satellite imagery that compares pre- and post-fire images and is field-verified. In the southern section of the burn area, the fire swept quickly through pinion and juniper forest, as well as oak brush.

The road and trails of Basalt Mountain are within a part of the White River National Forest that is closed to public use. Part of the closure is due to the high number of dead trees left standing and other trees that look alive but are severely damaged from the fire. Hundreds of those trees pose a risk of falling, so the routes will remain closed for the foreseeable future.

"Next spring we will re-evaluate the condition of Basalt Mountain Road and Upper Cattle Creek Road, along with associated trails in the area for potential reopening to the public," said Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer. "Before we can open them, we need to evaluate and mitigate the hazard-tree risk."

The BAER team's report said it will take one or two years for the understory to bounce back on Basalt Mountain but a considerably longer time for trees to recover from the fire. It will likely require seeding or planting, according to the report.

The BAER team advised the Forest Service to keep the closure in place, erect emergency signage, place drainage structures on the erosion-prone roads and trails, treat noxious weeds and monitor stream health.

"The White River National Forest will continue to provide information and participate in interagency efforts to address threats to public and private values at risk resulting from the Lake Christine Fire and will also continue to work with partners on long-term recovery efforts of this area," the agency said in a statement.

The burn severity map and BAER report for the Lake Christine Fire can be found at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5928.

scondon@aspentimes.com