SUN MOUNTAIN, Okanogan County – This winter, when skiers strap on their gear at the popular Chickadee Trailhead in the Sun Mountain portion of the Methow Trails network, they’ll find a new sight amidst the white corduroy carpets that wind through the forest. Charred specimens of aspen, pine and fir line the trails, the remains of last summer’s devastating wildfires, the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires.
But while evidence of the Cedar Creek fire is plentiful in this section of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, closed trail signs are few and far between. Only 2% of the 120 miles of groomed winter hiking trails are maintained by Recreation non-profit Methow Trails are out of service this season (less than 2.5 miles), although fires burned through 50 miles of the trail network from July through September.
As skiers big and small glided along during the busy week between Christmas and New Year’s, the cheerful scenery looked much like a typical winter’s day at full speed the largest cross-country trail network in the U.S. This tableau is a far cry from the mental state of Methow Trails CEO James DeSalvo in early October, when he was finally given the green light by the fire department to assess the condition of the trails himself.
“I’ve been through every emotion that’s out there,” he said over the phone in December.
While the condition of the trails was secondary to the health and safety of friends and neighbors, once the immediate threats to life and property had subsided, DeSalvo faced some grim numbers.
“The trails are responsible for hundreds of jobs. Alongside construction, they are our most important economic factor,” he said. “When [fire] if half the trail network burns down, does that mean half the jobs are gone and half the valley’s livelihood cannot survive?
A 2015 economic impact study is credited $12.4 million in annual economic activity in the Methow Valley to the trail network.
“You start thinking about the emotional reaction to a catastrophe through a thousand cuts,” he said. “It goes on like this every week, someone isn’t open.”
While the Methow Valley Fire is no stranger — this part of north-central Washington is a fire-adapted ecosystem and wildfires are a natural part of the landscape — the intensity of the fires was unprecedented, shooting up so-called pyrocumulus, or “fire clouds,” that of Seattle were visible from.
“These had the largest impact of any fire on Methow Trails in our 46-year history,” DeSalvo said. Five major wildfires burned through the valley in his tenure, but none came within 5 miles of any trails. The Cedar Creek fire burned an area about the size of Seattle, says Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spokeswoman Victoria Wilkins.
In the short window of time last fall between the fire being extinguished and the first snow, teams including employees from the US Forest Service, Methow Trails and the nearby Sun Mountain Lodge removed over 1,000 dead trees. DeSalvo estimates that over the next ten years, another 1,000 trees will need to be preventively removed or fall onto the trails. The risk they pose so-called “widow makers” is a reason to give burnt trees a wide berth.
Bulldozers rushed in in the summer to dig fire lines. These teams cleaned up their mess and re-seeded areas while trail crews attacked Widowmakers with chainsaws. Then people like Sun Mountain Lodge Activities Manager Bret Alumbaugh added the finishing touches. “We spent many days with shovels and rakes rebuilding sections of trail,” he recalled of the professional trail crews and experienced volunteers who flocked the trails at Sun Mountain, about 12 to 20 a day, one each Day just worked for 90 days.
The result – an almost 100% intact winter road network – surprised the forest service. “Given the severity of the fire in some areas, we did not expect the trails to be repaired in time to open for the winter recreation season,” Wilkins wrote via email.
“This autumn has been no wonder in terms of the scale of aid – we worked under restrictions for a long time before we were able to open up [to volunteers], and even then we wanted qualified employees,” said DeSalvo. “It was the workload of a few people rather than a Herculean crowd. But for the future we need the help of the people and it will be a big effort.”
Winter hiking trails have a few factors that work in their favor. Most groomed trails are forest roads, which have suffered less damage and risk of erosion than tight singletrack. Meanwhile, cold temperatures are fixing the ground. However, once the spring thaw arrives, the condition of the summer trails is a different matter altogether.
“The bottom is still there, but can it support a 150-pound rider on a mountain bike or the 1,500-pound horse and human combo?” said DeSalvo.
While it is still too early to calculate the mileage of closed summer hiking trails, it is widely expected that the hiking and mountain biking network will not be as close to 100% open in summer as winter hiking trails. Already the Methow chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance Raise money to rebuild 22 miles of mountain bike trails destroyed by fire on Sun Mountain.
Public land managers test the soil before clearing paths for reopening. In the unusually hot conditions of last summer’s fires, the soil can become hydrophobic, allowing rainwater to run off instead of being absorbed into the soil. These conditions can create washout risks for hiking trails and associated infrastructure such as bridges and culverts.
The sheer intensity of last summer’s wildfires prompted DeSalvo to think more deeply about the resilience of the trail network and the trails’ role as fire-resistant infrastructure. He outlines new worst-case scenarios for reopening sections of the trail network when bridges burn or are eroded, noting the organization’s current capacity to rebuild just one or two a year.
On the more proactive side, however, the wildfires were a test case for how trails can act as effective firebreaks. In many places in the valley, trees burned on one side of a trail but not the other, indicating the trail helped stop the fire.
“It’s like a moat,” DeSalvo said. “There are restrictions. The fire burned over many of our ditches, but when you get tired of them and take good care of them how great it would be to see a neighborhood, community, city and valley surrounded by paths and roads.
“We will spend millions on firefighting – and we should – but here are ways to do it [fight fire] previously more proactive at a more favorable level [suppression] is absolutely necessary.”
Alumbaugh, who knows the ins and outs of the trails around Sun Mountain better than anyone, embraces the changed landscape. Fire crept within a quarter mile of Sun Mountain Lodge’s front door and smoke damage kept the luxury lodge closed for months. Today, guests will find a new brochure in the lobby, outlining the role wildfires play on the landscape and explaining the effects of last summer’s conflagration.
“It may look different, but overall fire isn’t a bad thing,” Alumbaugh said. “Even before the snow fell, the burnt areas near the hut were green. The grass had already grown back and the plants were growing back. In spring it will be quite amazing how green and lush it will be in these burned areas.”