Rocky faces long road to recovery from East Troublesome Fire

Flames move through the Kawuneechee Valley near the Coyote Valley Trailhead on Oct. 22 in Rocky Mountain National Park. Rocky outlined its plans for recovery for the fire, which burned more than 27 square miles on the western side.
Courtesy RMNP

With more than 27 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park burned on the western side alone, recovery efforts for the iconic landmark will be extensive.

Chief of Resource Stewardship Koren Nydick outlined the park’s plan for emergency stabilization and burned area rehabilitation to Grand County commissioners on Tuesday. The plan covered impacts like trail and road management, vegetation and wildlife, watershed concerns and cultural resources.

The East Troublesome Fire burned 31 miles of trails on the western side of the Rocky, known as the Colorado River District or Grand Lake’s backyard. Eighteen campsites and 13.5 miles worth of roads were also in the burn area.

Additionally, Rocky lost a number of structures with most on the western side, including historical buildings and park housing. Some of the initial work will be mitigating those hazards.

The Grand Lake Entrance Station office was destroyed by the East Troublesome Fire, though the entrance stations kiosks adjacent to it remain standing. A number of Rocky’s buildings on the western side of the park were destroyed by the fire.
Courtesy RMNP

Rebuilding the extensive trail system is a two-step process, the first being to remove hazard and fallen trees. Second, the wooden structures that “hold” trails in place have to be replaced.

“The real concern, especially with the trails, (is) if we don’t stabilize them we could lose the trail infrastructure because the erosion control structures burnt out,” Nydick explained.

A number of wooden bridges were also destroyed and only the key ones will be replaced immediately. That means when trails reopen, hikers may have to cross certain creeks without bridges.

Watershed impacts are a behemoth of their own. Rocky was able to model a severe, one-hour rainstorm over the burnt drainages in the park.

The Green Mountain basin saw some of the worst damage, and possible runoff and debris in a storm is exacerbated by its steepness.

“For this little watershed, we do expect some significant effects there where it crosses Trail Ridge Road,” Nydick said.

Peak flow for the Green Mountain basin is expected to see a nearly 2,000% change, while sediment delivery will increase by over 2,000%. The drainage goes toward Trail Ridge Road, which features a culvert from that creek.

The culvert that goes underneath Trail Ridge Road near the Green Mountain trailhead is a concern for Rocky Mountain National Park, which expects that drainage to see a large increase in peak runoff and debris flow.
Courtesy RMNP

Rocky has sought funding for a trap to catch the extra debris. Nydick added that the park may also have staff doing “storm patrol” to help with mitigation along Trail Ridge Road.

The Tonahutu watershed will also see significant change in flow and debris, though not to the same extent as the Green Mountain basin.

Certain bridges are low enough to warrant some worry in heavy storms near Grand Lake. Rocky is working with the town and the county to implement early warning systems for flooding.

“The sediment has been collecting on these hillsides for many, many years,” Nydick said. “With the fire and the runoff that comes with it, we’ll get increased sediment. But the story is not expected to be as bad as what you’ve heard in California … except for a couple places.”

Most of the fire damage to the Colorado River was on Forest Service or private land, so the park was not able to run models for those areas. Rocky is collaborating with Northern Water and other local groups on watershed impacts.

As for the vegetation in Rocky, there was some good news.

Nydick described images of trees bent over or even snapped by the wind, attesting to the major windstorm that accompanied the wildfire. While that meant that the East Troublesome Fire traveled at unprecedented speeds, there’s an unexpected benefit for the soil.

“One thing that we think (the wind) did, is it meant the fire moved quickly over the landscape, so the soils didn’t cook as much as if it stayed in one place for a long time,” Nydick said. “And, also, we got that snow on top which helped cool down the soil.”

Assessment teams have found that many roots remain intact and that the fire did not burn hot enough to destroy soil structure in most areas.

“The take home message is that … it just looks torched because we lost a lot of the aboveground vegetation,” Nydick said. “The trees are heavily charred. A lot of them are dead — not all though, we expect some will survive. But the soils are not telling the same story … and that is good news.”

Native sedges in Rocky Mountain National Park are already rebounding from live root systems under the duff burnt in the East Troublesome Fire. The fast-moving fire did not damage the soil structure in many parts of the park, which is good news.
Courtesy RMNP

The fire did burn down many of the willows and shrubs in the area. Nydick said some may sprout back up depending on the level of char and how much wildlife feeds on the new growth. Rocky hopes to restore wetlands in the Kawnueeche Valley in the long term.

As for wildlife, Nydick said there were some elk that were overrun by the fire and didn’t make it. Many of the moose in the park have previously been collared for observation, and it seems like most made it out of the fire based on that tracking.

Because Rocky has good data from past research efforts, the park will be able to study the effect of the burned forage habitat on the animals.

The park is also aware of fish kills on both sides, including a significant amount of trout. The fishery is expected to be impacted in the short term.

Rocky will be posting signs to warn visitors of the new hazards along the burn scar and seeking funding to mitigate the various impacts, focusing initially on safety.

The goal is to have most areas open by mid-summer once the trails are cleared and the park conducts a risk assessment. Nydick didn’t want to guarantee a date, but felt sure that more of Rocky would begin reopening through the summer.

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