The Waldo Canyon fire last summer was a monster; killing two people, devouring homes and neighborhoods, and rampaging through public lands, leaving blackened forests with dead trees standing like skeletons.
The fire damaged more than 18,000 acres in the Pike National Forest, with 60 percent of that land receiving moderate or severe damage. It also claimed two of the Pikes Peak Region’s most popular recreation areas – Rampart Reservoir and Waldo Canyon, where the fire started – and impacted Blodgett Peak and Mountain Shadows open space.
Rampart is shared by hikers, campers, and anglers, and the trail that snakes around its perimeter is one of the classic mountain bike challenges in the region. Waldo Canyon has always been touted as a classic loop trail for runners and hikers. And Blodgett is a neighborhood favorite that offers valuable access to the Pike National Forest.
What are the odds we’ll be able to bike around Rampart, hike Waldo or explore Blodgett Peak this summer?
Here’s the latest information:
Open or closed?: The forest service is looking at opening the Reservoir area and its campgrounds by Memorial Day, says spokesman Frank Landis. “That depends, of course on conditions this spring,” he says
What it looks like: There is major damage near the Schubarth area of the reservoir property, and the fire burned right up to the two campgrounds – Meadow Ridge and Thunder Ridge - and the picnic area If you hike or bike into the area on the Rainbow Gulch Trail, you won’t see much evidence of a fire until you get to the reservoir itself. As you drive toward the dam, you’ll see where the fire burned up to the highway. And Landis says the whole loop trail was impacted. As you ride around the reservoir, you’ll move through areas of burn.
What’s being done: Hazard trees are being removed from near the highway; trails and campgrounds are being evaluated.
Potential hazards: Burned trees also often have burned roots, and can fall. Flooding is a concern, and that could bring rock falls with it.
Open or closed: Closed.
What it looks like: This popular reservoir, the tiny offspring of Rampart, has been drained, with its water relocated in Rampart.
What’s being done: Steve Berry, spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities, says Rampart’s water level is higher right now because of that. The draining of Nichols was a response to a tough drought year, Berry says.
Open or closed: Closed indefinitely.
What it looks like: It’s not hard to see that Waldo Canyon has been irrevocably changed by the fire that started within its boundaries in June. The trailhead on U.S. Highway 24 has been blocked off with concrete barriers since last summer, and erosion has already dramatically changed the hillside that’s visible from the highway.
Landis says there are no plans to open Waldo, where many areas burned so intensely that the soil was sterilized.
What’s being done: The forest service is still working on its investigation of the fire.
Potential hazards: Extreme flooding is a huge danger here, as well as rock fall and tree fall.
Open or closed: Closed indefinitely
What it looks like: There are "No Trespassing" signs marking the entrance to Williams Canyon at the old iron gate on the road that once served as an exit to Cave of the Winds.
While the lower canyon was spared by the fire, higher elevations there were burned.
Blodgett Peak Open Space
Open or closed: Closed, with some hope for opening this summer, according to Kurt Schroeder, manager of Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
What it looks like: “About 50 percent of the open space was burned,” Schroeder says. “If you drive past the trailhead from Woodman Road, it looks pretty good. But if you hike in and get up past the water tank and higher on the property, it’s completely burned.”
Schroeder says there are promising signs. Some grasses in the burned area are already coming back, as well as scrub oak coming back from roots that weren’t burned.
What’s being done: Volunteers have already worked in Blodgett. Projects include log contouring, seeding, and building cribbing structures to aid in drainage. Standing dead trees are being evaluated for safety, and removed if necessary.
Potential hazards: Extreme flooding, as well as snag trees – trees still standing that have comprised root systems.
(Note: Mountain Shadows Open Space was also impacted, but it’s a collection of smaller pockets of land; work is also being done there.)
Fishing: Rampart Reservoir offers shore fishing and has a boat launch area, and its known for its abundance of trout - lake, brown, cutthroat and rainbow. It’s regularly stocked by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, and spokesman Michael Seraphin says the agency is planning on stocking this spring if the reservoir is set to open.
Rampart’s water is cold and clear, and Seraphin says the water quality wasn’t impacted by the fire.
“A lot of the water in Rampart comes from the western slope, and it never picks up debris,” Serephin says. “So that makes this a different situation than in the past, at places like Cheeseman (a reservoir badly contaminated during the Hayman fire).
Wildlife viewing: The fire destroyed thousands of acres of wildlife habitat… or did it?
Seraphin, from Parks and Wildlife, says that’s a common misperception – that a wildfire misplaces animals and diminishes animal populations.
“Wildfires change the way animals use the forest,” he says.
Wildlife watchers will see species changes. More dead trees provide a better habitat for woodpeckers, so their numbers will increase. In burn areas, deer and elk reach numbers higher than before, because an open canopy provides more grass. Bears also do better, because they like the low ground vegetation.
And areas where the fire skipped around are especially attractive to animals, who find more places to hide. Sheep populations, especially, will increase, Seraphin says, “because they are skittish in forested area. They can’t see their predators that easily in dense forests.”
Deer, elk and bear populations increased in the Hayman burn area for several years, peaking about seven or eight years after the fire. “Then, as the forest becomes thicker again, we’ll see their populations level off again,” Seraphin said.
Get a look: These public lands are closed right now, and officials are patrolling and handing out warnings and/or tickets for trespassing.
But there are a couple of ways to check out the burn areas yourself:
Volunteer: More than 400 people have already helped with work in the Blodgett Peak Open Space. For volunteer opportunities, check with the Trails & Open Space Coalition (www.trailsandopenspaces.org)
Watch for programs: Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services is planning at least one program this spring for residents of burn-affected areas and others who are interested. Manager Kurt Schroeder says the program will include tours of the Blodgett Peak and Mountain Shadows open space areas.
I'm optimistic about Waldo Canyon...