Pockets of upper Basalt Mountain are slow to heal from Lake Christine Fire
While parts of Basalt Mountain have experienced a remarkable recovery this year from last summer’s Lake Christine Fire, some pockets on the upper mountain need more time to heal.
Stretches of the Basalt Mountain Trail and Cattle Creek Trail remain charred and mostly lifeless. There are pockets along the 3.5-mile Basalt Mountain Trail where there is nothing but charred trunks of standing and fallen conifer trees. The path is a ribbon through ash and blackened soil. In the most extreme areas, only a few scattered green plants poke up from the gray landscape here and there.
In other pockets, the ubiquitous fireweed is staging a comeback and its telltale fuchsia flowers pop in contrast to the black scene.
Roughly half of the trail, on the eastern end, is untouched. The meadows scattered among conifer stands remain as wildflower-filled as ever.
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The Cattle Creek Trail, a rollercoaster descent that loses 1,845 feet in 3.7 miles after connecting with the Basalt Mountain Trail, crosses a mosaic of scenery. Some stretches of forest are untouched, others singed and some charred but already bouncing back.
The charred portions of the Basalt Mountain Trail didn’t recovery as rapidly as the Miller Creek Trail at mid-mountain. While the Mill Creek Trail traveled through a burned-out landscape in mid-June, by mid-July it was nearly neon green with grasses, wildflowers and thousands of new aspen saplings.
“It’s been a vibrant year,” said Liz Roberts, an ecologist with the White River National Forest.
Basalt Mountain is providing a textbook display of a mountain recovering from wildfire, she said. That recovery was aided by a winter with bountiful snow and a wet spring and early summer.
The recovery process isn’t uniform because of a variety of factors — elevation, aspect, vegetation types and severity of the fire, Roberts said. The Mill Creek Trail tops out at nearly 8,900 feet. The Basalt Mountain Trail is about 1,000 feet higher.
Basalt Mountain ranges from montane shrublands at lower elevations that feature a lot of pinyon and juniper trees and oak brush, a transition zone blanketed with aspen trees and a high zone with spruce and fir.
The fire moved slower and at higher intensity at the upper part of the mountain.
“We had some high burn severity pockets up there,” Roberts said.
Hotter burning areas of the fire destroyed the organic material in the soil and removed nutrients necessary for plants to regenerate.
“If it burns hot enough, you lose your seed source,” Roberts said.
As the thousands of charred tree trunks decompose, they will replenish nutrients and help vegetation recover. Seeds of the fireweed and arnica plants — among the first to proliferate on Basalt Mountain — will blow around the burn scar and take hold in another year or two, Roberts said.
The Forest Service will monitor the spread of invasive weeds such as thistle and houndstongue, and it will act accordingly with treatments, she said.
Another aspect of the recovery featured removing hazardous tree trunks that were dead but still standing alongside Basalt Mountain Road. The White River National Forest hired a contractor to remove trees within 100 feet of the centerline on both sides of the upper Basalt Mountain Road. Thousands of trees were felled in early August along a little more than 2 miles of upper Basalt Mountain Road.
Forest Service staff expected the project would take as long as four weeks. The contractor whipped through it in a week. The road was reopened late last month for motorized travel. It also remained open to pedestrians and cyclists.
The project was “100 percent” a safety project, said Deputy Forest Supervisor Lisa Stoeffler. It was best to remove all the hazard trees at once. “Otherwise you’re sending a crew out there every week,” she said.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the vast stretches of burned forest that weren’t cleared along the road will go through a natural clearing. The roots of the dead trees will rot and they will tumble.
“Year eight to 10 (after a fire) is when you see a difference,” he said.
The fire already opened up the dense overstory on the mountain. Now nature will open it up even more. The Lake Christine Fire swept across about 12,500 acres of land. About 8,500 acres was in national forest.
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.