SUN MOUNTAIN, Okanogan County — When skiers strap into their gear this winter at the popular Chickadee Trailhead in the Sun Mountain section of the Methow Trails network, they will encounter a new sight amid the corduroy carpets of white that wind their way through the forest. Charred specimens of aspen, pine and fir trees pepper the trails, the remnants of last summer’s double whammy of devastating wildfires, the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires.
But while evidence of the Cedar Creek fire abounds in this section of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, closed trail signs are few and far between. A mere 2% of the 120 miles of groomed winter trails maintained by recreation nonprofit Methow Trails are out of commission this season (less than 2.5 miles) even though fire scorched through 50 miles of the trail network from July to September.
As skiers young and old glided along during the busy week between Christmas and New Year’s, the joyful scene looked similar to a typical peak winter day on the largest cross-country ski trail network in the U.S. That tableau is a far cry from Methow Trails executive director James DeSalvo’s mental state in early October, when he was finally given the green light by fire management crews to assess the state of the trails for himself.
“I went through every emotion that’s out there,” he said via phone in December.
While the state of the trails was a secondary concern to the health and safety of friends and neighbors, once the immediate threats to life and property abated, DeSalvo found himself running some grim numbers.
“The trails are responsible for hundreds of jobs. They are our main economic driver other than construction,” he said. “If [fire] burns half the trail network, does that mean half of the jobs are gone and half of the livelihood of the valley can’t survive?”
A 2015 economic impact study attributed $12.4 million in annual economic activity in the Methow Valley to the trail network.
“You start thinking the death-by-a-thousand-cuts emotional response to catastrophe,” he said. “Every week this goes on, someone’s not open for business.”
While the Methow Valley is no stranger to fire — this part of North Central Washington is a fire-adapted ecosystem and wildfire is a natural part of the landscape — the intensity of the fires was unprecedented, shooting up so-called pyrocumulus or “fire clouds” that were visible from Seattle.
“These had the biggest impact of any fire on Methow Trails in our 46-year history,” DeSalvo said. Five major wildfires have blazed through the valley in his tenure, but none came closer than 5 miles away from any trails. The Cedar Creek fire burned an area roughly the size of Seattle, says Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spokesperson Victoria Wilkins.
In the short window of time last fall between stamping out the fire and the first snows, crews encompassing personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, Methow Trails and nearby Sun Mountain Lodge removed over 1,000 dead trees. DeSalvo estimates over the next decade that another 1,000 trees will need to be removed preemptively or will fall onto the trails. The risk posed by these so-called “widowmakers” is a reason to give burnt trees a wide berth.
Bulldozers stormed in during the summer to dig fire lines. Those teams cleaned up their mess and reseeded areas, while trail crews attacked widowmakers with chain saws. Then folks like Sun Mountain Lodge’s activities director Bret Alumbaugh put in the finishing touches. “We spent a lot of days with shovels and rakes rebuilding sections of trails,” he recalled of the professional trail crews and skilled volunteers who fanned out across the trails on Sun Mountain, about 12 to 20 per day, one of whom worked every day straight for 90 days.
The outcome — a nearly 100% intact winter trail network — surprised the Forest Service. “Given the severity of the fire in some of areas we did not anticipate trails would be repaired in time to open for the winter recreation season,” wrote Wilkins via email.
“This fall wasn’t miraculous in terms of the volume of help — we worked under restrictions for a long time before we were able to open up [to volunteers], and even then we wanted skilled individuals,” DeSalvo said. “It was more the volume of work of a few people rather than a herculean volume of people. But moving forward we need people’s help and it will be a major effort.”
Winter trails have a few factors working in their favor. Most of the groomed ski trails are forest roads, which suffered less damage and erosion risk than tight, singletrack trails. Meanwhile, cold temperatures lock the ground into place. Once the spring thaw comes, however, the condition of summer trails is another matter entirely.
“The ground is still there, but can it support a 150-pound rider on a mountain bike or the 1,500-pound combination of horse and human?” DeSalvo said.
While it’s too soon to calculate the mileage of closed summer trails, there is widespread expectation that the summer hiking and mountain biking network will not be as close to 100% open as the winter trails are. Already, the Methow chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance is raising money to rebuild 22 miles of mountain bike trails destroyed by fire on Sun Mountain.
Public-land managers test soil before clearing trails for reopening. In the abnormally hot conditions of last summer’s fires, soil can become hydrophobic, such that rain water runs off rather than being absorbed by the soil. Those conditions can create washout risks for trails and related infrastructure like bridges and culverts.
The sheer intensity of last summer’s wildfires has DeSalvo thinking more acutely about both the trail network’s resilience and the role of trails as fire-resilient infrastructure. He is plotting new worst-case scenarios for how to reopen sections of the trail network if bridges burn or wash out, noting the organization’s current capacity to rebuild only one or two per year.
On the more proactive side, however, the wildfires were a test case for how trails can function as effective firebreaks. At many locations in the valley, trees burned on one side of a trail but not the other, indicating that the trail helped stop the fire.
“It’s like a moat,” DeSalvo said. “There are limitations. The fire burned over a lot of our moats, but if you have enough of them and you maintain them well, how great would it be to see a neighborhood, community, town and valley encircled by trails and roads.
“We will spend millions on fire suppression — and we should — but here are ways to [fight fire] more proactively on a cheaper level before [suppression] is absolutely needed.”
Alumbaugh, who knows the ins and outs of trails around Sun Mountain as well as anyone, is taking the changed landscape in stride. Fire crept within one-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 of wildfire on the landscape and explaining the impact of this past summer’s conflagration.
“It does look different, but overall fire is not a bad thing,” Alumbaugh said. “Even before the snow fell, the areas near the lodge that got burned were all green. The grass had already grown back and plants were growing back. In the springtime it’s going to be pretty amazing how green and lush it will be in those burn areas.”