Paul Andersen: A return to the burn of Lake Christine
A herd of bighorn rams moved gingerly over the basalt boulders as we climbed through the remains of a dead pinon/juniper forest a week before the snow came. The blackened trees stood like tombstones marking dismal graves from the Lake Christine Fire.
Anyone who witnessed the fire will remember the billowing plumes of black smoke, the flickering fires at night, the incessant smell of smoke. Everyone will remember the feeling of vulnerability as the fire whipped back and forth on shifting winds that determined its erratic course.
That fire became a living, breathing thing as it scorched the landscape and altered people’s lives. Now, two years after, the scar stands as testimony to the recklessness of a young couple who may for the rest of their lives be haunted by the law of unintended consequences.
It had been 15 years since I last walked the rolling hills above Old Town Basalt. Back then, my friends and I shouldered backpacks up to High Park, a grassy vale with a lively spring gushing cool, clear water over an emerald bed of watercress.
From there, expansive vistas spanned the Elk Range, from New York Peak to Mount Sopris. In the verdant valley below stood the fluted ridges of Light Hill and Williams Mountain.
After a silent night at High Park, we contoured up the western escarpment of Basalt Mountain, scrambling over the remnants of an ancient magma flow that defines much of the geology of the midvalley.
Traversing across Basalt Mountain on a compass-bearing bushwhack through miles of dark timber in a tangled wilderness of fallen timber, we eventually found Toner Reservoir, high on Red Table Mountain.
Beyond Toner, route-finding guesswork eventually took us down through the Seven Castles on a precarious route of rock ledges, pour-overs and eventually to my home in the Fryingpan Valley.
Hiking last week through the devastation of the Lake Christine burn, Neil Young’s lyrics played through my mind — “Oh … the damage done …” Where a thick and vibrant forest once sheltered birds, plants and animals, there lies a mostly barren landscape of soot-blackened soil.
Look closer and you’ll see vibrant sprouts of aspens, oaks, serviceberry, chokecherry, ferns and wildflowers, the immutability of biodiversity. Even during a super-dry autumn, these ebullient upstarts are striving toward the sun.
Such is the natural succession of the forest in the aftermath of fire where introductory species proliferate in the absence of a closed canopy shading the sun. With no competition to impede them, plants grow 3 feet a year. The PJ forest will be decades in its return, but the understory is exploding.
There remain unmolested pockets of forest and grasses that were skipped over as the fire see-sawed across the mountain. Those pockets provide seeds, spores and species that will gradually restore the land.
Standing in the midst of it, one feels humility before the destructive forces of a fire bent on destruction, but which soon gave birth to new life in new ways. The life force is forever, but it will be many lifetimes before the charred contours of Basalt Mountain are restored to what was there just three years ago.
At the top of one ridge, spiked with dead trees, where every branch was a stick of charcoal, the deep, heavy tracks of a plodding bear marched down toward the Roaring Fork Valley where cottonwoods glowed with autumn yellow and green meadows defined neat hay fields.
Forecasts for climate change predict a drier climate with more fires as seen catastrophically in northern Colorado and the largest conflagration in the state’s history. It was far worse in California, where more than 5 million acres have burned this summer.
The Lake Christine Fire was small by comparison, but walking through the aftermath is just as tragic, just as regrettable, because this fire was caused by carelessness and ignorance. Like climate change, the damage was man-made and avoidable.
Walking across the burn, which is seen so starkly from the midvalley, one is reminded of the vulnerability of many similar landscapes and of the finality of a fire, the ghostly remains of which beckon with a moral message for cautious responsibility.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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