Will the Vail Valley look like this?

Charred scene in the Flat Tops Wilderness may foreshadow the Vail Valley to come

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Burnt trees are abundant in the Trapper's Lake area in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
Bret Hartman/Vail Daily

Nicole Frey
October 6, 2005

GARFIELD COUNTY — The opposing hillside was a stark scene of skeletal trees creating a jagged horizon reaching for a backdrop of cloudy sky. Up close, you could see the charred bark peeling away from the petrified tree trunk.


Photo by Bret Hartman/Vail Daily
Scenes from the Flat Tops Wilderness Area known as Trapper's Lake.
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The ghost forest, a product of the 2002 Big Fish Valley and Lost Lake fires in the Flat Tops Wilderness in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, may foreshadow the future of the Vail Valley.

After suffering a beetle infestation in the 1940s and 1950s, similar to the infestation attacking our valley now, wind swept through the wilderness downing trees.

“It’s just one of those forces, that no matter what we do, they’re going to win eventually,” said Kacey Cox, the lead wilderness ranger for the Blanco District of the National Forest Service based in Meeker.

As the forest aged and dried out, just as Eagle County’s forests are doing, lightning struck twice July 17 and 18, 2002. Two months later, 23,040 acres of forest were charred.


Photo by Bret Hartman/Vail Daily
Burnt trees serve as a reminder of nature's violence and the renewal process that follows.`
Bret Hartman/Vail Daily

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“It’s a bit of a different ecosystem, but in this case, the disturbance sequence is pretty much the same,” said Ron Tussig, wilderness manager for the Blanco District.

Cal Wettstein, district ranger for Eagle County, assured it’s not if, but when, fire will come to the valley, and depending on where it hits, the forces of man will work furiously to suppress it or let nature take its course.

Letting it burn
The fire in the Flat Tops Wilderness was allowed to burn naturally, closely monitored but without suppression. For the first four weeks, the fire crept along the ground, but escalated under low humidity and high winds.

“We manage the fires, we do plans and computer models of where it’s going to go,” said Eric Rebitzke, the assistant fire management officer for the National Forest Service in Eagle. “It’s under very controlled conditions. We don’t just let anything go.”
To this day, Martha Kettele, the former forest supervisor for the White River National Forest that contains the Flat Tops Wilderness, maintains while allowing the fire to burn wasn’t an easy decision, it was ultimately the right one.
“We forget that fire is good for the environment,” added Vail Fire Chief John Gulick.

As the fire escalated, firefighters worked to protect buildings, but eight burned. Ironically, some buildings that hadn’t been protected survived unharmed because people had cleared the land surrounding the structure of trees and other fuel for the fire.

“The bottom line, especially in the Vail Valley, is that people need to take the initiative to clear around their homes,” Cox said. “But when you move into nature, you’ve got to accept that nature is going to do stuff that you don’t like sometimes.”

Burnt toothpicks
In the Vail Valley, the primary concern right now is the eyesore of the dead red trees. Tom Talbot, Vail’s fire technician and wildland coordinator, had mused about who would vacation in the valley if there were only burnt toothpicks to gaze on.
But Cox said most people visiting the Flat Tops Wilderness are very understanding about the crispy situation, and the changed landscape has not decreased tourism.
“The fire itself leaves an ugly scar, but it’s got its stark beauty too,” said Brian Welder, a local outfitter in the area.
While the Flat Tops Wilderness was allowed to burn, a naturally occurring fire in the populated areas of the Vail Valley would be snuffed out immediately, Gulick said.
“We would probably never allow a fire of that scale because our economy is based on tourism,” he said. “Our job in the town of Vail is to extinguish the fire.”
In the wilderness areas along the Gore Range or Holy Cross, forest service officials would evaluate conditions and circumstances to determine if they should try to kill the fire or manage it. Every attempt is made to immediately extinguish any man-made fires, Rebitzke said.

“There’s a whole bunch of factors that weigh into our decision,” Rebitzke said. “Nothing is decided lightly.”

From black to gray

As the forest regenerates, the blackened trees will fade to gray. Already, the beginnings of new trees are poking out of the earth. New grasses blanketed the ground and wildflowers exploded in a grand display of color in the summer.

“It’s going to be interesting to watch those changes over the years,” Tussig said.

It will be another seven years before grasses and shrubs are firmly in place. In a decade, aspen trees will appears, and a half a century later, lodgepole pines. In 200 to 300 years, the forest will be as thick as before the fire.

One of the biggest challenges the forest service now faces is reestablishing a trail system, Cox said. The fire cooked the soils leaving crumbling ash. The ash is unstable and has washed away in some areas, smudging out existing trails.

However, John Aranella with the Yampa District of the forest service said the fire may open more travel corridors.

“However nature wants it to be, is what it’s going to be,” he said.
Cox agreed with Aranella’s ‘c’est la vie’ attitude, gazing at the scorched landscape in wonder.

“I see creation, and I see Mother Nature in action,” Cox said. “Man is a visitor that does not remain, and we should feel privileged to witness this process.”

Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or nfrey@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado