A Look at Cameron Peak Fire a Year Later

Reghan Cloudman
Public Affairs Specialist

Forest Service
Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland

When the Cameron Peak Fire began on August 13, 2020, no one would have predicted the immense impact it would have on our communities, our forest, or our lives. No one would have predicted it would grow to become the largest fire in Colorado history with ten Incident Management Teams over the course of many months. What one could predict, however, is that the people of northern Colorado and Larimer County would join forces to recover and demonstrate incredible strength.

From that first day, the Cameron Peak Fire put up challenge after challenge for fire managers from drought conditions to rugged terrain to extreme weather conditions, fueling its growth to 208,913 acres. The fire was ultimately contained December 2, 2020 and called controlled January 12, 2021. The damage done by this historic fire took five months. The recovery will take longer and be accomplished by partners working shoulder to shoulder.

Below is a summary from a few of those amazing northern Colorado partners and the recovery work already accomplished or anticipated. This work shows the resiliency of the people and the land. It is long, hard work to recover. We are all in it for the duration.

The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland is addressing recovery in three phases. Fire suppression repair work continues across the landscape. More than 140 miles of fire hand line and dozer line have been repaired. A semitrailer load of 16,000 feet of hose, seven pumps, fuel cans and other suppression items were collected within the fire area and returned for future use.

Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) work is the second phase. Information on Cameron Peak Fire BAER is available at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/7210/. Volunteers and crews have cut approximately 4,000 hazard trees from trails, removed bridges so they will not wash away, installed 455 erosion control structures (like water bars or retaining walls), repaired 661 erosion control structures, and replaced over 60 signs within the burn area. We thank our incredible volunteers – Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, Overland Mountain Bike Association, Cameron Pass Nordic Rangers, and Wildlands Restoration Volunteers – for their contributions, as well as the Rocky Mountain Conservancy Conservation Corps, Larimer County Youth Conservation Corps, and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

Long-term Recovery is the final phase and includes integrated work with partners. The Forest Service has issued numerous permits to facilitate recovery work, such as aerial mulching, water monitoring, and utility infrastructure efforts, and are analyzing what reforestation might look like within the burn scar, as well as other longer-term recreation needs.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is implementing the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program to provide federal assistance on five of the 2020 wildfires in Colorado, including Cameron Peak. The EWP program relieves imminent hazards to life and property, and through EWP, NRCS is providing $7.3 million towards Cameron Peak recovery efforts, including the installation of measures that reduce sedimentation, erosion, and threats from future flooding.

Larimer County has been in collaboration with local, state, and federal partners leading the way throughout the Cameron Peak Fire recovery and restoration efforts. The recovery and restoration work of debris management, erosion control, suppression repairs, sandbagging, and vegetative debris removal have been key activities that have guided the participation of recovery partners.

The Long-Term Recovery Group has mobilized dozens of volunteer and non-profit groups to help with recovery needs and post-fire impacts. These groups have addressed hazardous trees on private lands, erosion control, stream mitigation, structure protection, private land repairs, and more.

Community meetings have been very important in addressing the needs for the impacted communities and helping those impacted in this recovery process. As a result of the recovery efforts, a greater focus on preparedness in flood-after fire and mitigation for our communities in vulnerable areas will continue to guide the collaboration of our partners. Resources for those impacted by the fire are available at https://www.larimer.org/emergency/recovery/wildfire-resources.

The City of Greeley has been a key partner in aerial mulching activities within the burn area for recovery efforts with partners. Water officials monitor source water quality as it flows downstream. Greeley strategically draws water from several sources, and water officials have the ability to change water sources when river water quality degrades. The diversity in supply and treatment infrastructure allows Greeley staff to navigate around poor water quality without affecting taste or quality or disrupting service.

The City of Fort Collins continues to address the short-term and long-term effects of Cameron Peak on its water supplies in the Poudre River watershed. In addition to partnering with the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed and the City of Greeley on aerial mulching to support long-term watershed recovery, Fort Collins Utilities also continually monitors water quality along the river and adjusts water treatment measures and protocols as needed to ensure high-quality drinking water for its customers. While thunderstorms continue to wash ash, sediment and debris down the river, Fort Collins Utilities is able to rely on Colorado-Big Thompson water supplies in Horsetooth Reservoir and customers should experience no change in water quality or service. See fcgov.com/water-status for details.

The Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW) is partnering with the cities of Greeley and Fort Collins to implement aerial mulching operations on more than 10,000 acres of high priority land within the Cameron Peak burn area. To date, more than 2,000 acres have been mulched as part of this effort. Mulching is part of a larger program of recovery work intended to provide holistic post-fire mitigation on a total of 20,000 acres, helping to mitigate the negative consequences of the wildfire to watershed values including water quality and river ecosystem function and health. High priority project areas were identified using science-based information and modeling, as well as collaborative data input from partners of the Larimer Recovery Collaborative. Mulching will be conducted through the summer and fall of 2021 and potentially into the summer of 2022.

The Big Thompson Watershed Coalition (BTWC) has been an active member of the Larimer Recovery Collaborative since the Cameron Peak Fire edged into the Big Thompson watershed in October 2020. While only a third of the fire burned in this watershed, there is a large proportion of private lands impacted across five communities. BTWC’s work emphasizes private land recovery while seeking funding for future aerial mulching endeavors uphill of our communities. Restoration activities have focused on landowner restoration trainings and volunteer programs. Trainings have provided 7,000 linear feet of wattles and 40 pounds of native seed to landowners. Volunteer programs have engaged over 80 volunteers in approximately 400 hours of erosion control work and will continue two Saturdays a month through the end of the year. BTWC is committed to helping our communities recover from this event while reducing water resource impacts from runoff from the burn and associated flooding.

Again, recovery will take time but working together is key to restoring our lands. We will not soon forget the date August 13, 2020, but we will move forward together. To find information about upcoming events, research, safety and more, please visit the Cameron Peak Fire Recovery StoryMap that was just recently published.

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