May 21, 2013 Updated: May 21, 2013 at 3:10 pm
The U.S. Forest Service plans to reopen Rampart Reservoir and some other areas hit by last year's Waldo Canyon fire Friday, just in time for the summer camping and hiking season.
The fire burned more than 18,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs. While large chunks of the burn scar, including popular trails such as Waldo Canyon, Williams Canyon and Blodgett Peak, are closed indefinitely, Pike National Forest officials have decided it is safe for people to use the campgrounds and trails around Rampart Reservoir and areas to the north.
Pikes Peak district ranger Al Hahn said the reopening allows the public into about a third of the forest land closed since the fire.
"The original closure had a lot of the unburned areas, and we closed it to manage peoples' access to the burn and other parts of the area," Hahn said.
Before the fire, Rampart Reservoir was popular for its network of hiking and biking trails, fishing, boating and two campgrounds. The fire burned along the south shore of the reservoir, though not severely enough to destroy all trees and vegetation in most places. Once reopened, it will be the best chance for people to see up-close the fire's impacts on the forests and how the landscape is taking the first steps toward recovery.
Those steps, warned Hahn, are baby steps.
"There's still going to be plenty of hazards left in the trail system. People are going to have to keep their heads up and know it's not a green forest anymore," he said.
Visitors will need to keep a lookout for falling trees when the wind picks up and flash flooding during heavy rains, though the area around the reservoir is not as steep and flood-prone as other parts of the burn scar. While on the roads, they must be ready for lots of heavy truck traffic, as work crews perform post-fire mitigation work.
Those who stop to look around will see "a mosaic of fire," areas where the fire left trees alive and others where everything was burned. Hahn said they also will see life returning, including grasses, scrub oak saplings, wildflowers and aspens whose seeds were waiting for a fire beneath the soil for 100 years.
The reservoir itself will reopen under different rules than before the fire, according to owner Colorado Springs Utilities.
Kim Gortz, source water protection specialist, said motorized boats won't be allowed this summer. They were previously able to use the reservoir on select days. She said officials were concerned about cars towing boats interfering with truck traffic on the roads. Plus, low water levels are expected to make the boat ramp unusable and Utilities no longer employs someone there to inspect boats for invasive mussels.
Hand-launched boats, such as canoes and kayaks, will be allowed, and people will be able to hike or bicycle across the dam, but not drive.
While fires and post-fire runoff can hurt water quality and cause erosion at reservoirs, such as at Denver Water's Cheesman Reservoir after the 2002 Hayman fire, only 18 percent of Rampart's watershed was burned, and the water is piped from the Blue River more than 100 miles away.
The trail to Nichols Reservoir will remain closed, like other trails that enter steeper, more severely burned areas.
Hahn said he understands the public's desire to have access to once-popular trails. The trails are intact, but in the steep, heavily-burned terrain, the dangers from falling trees and flash flooding is greater, and many of these places will be the focus of post-fire mitigation work this summer.
"If it's a trail and it's in the really black part of Waldo, you can bet it's not going to reopen (this summer)," he said.
Also important is to allow the vegetation to regrow without boots on the highly erosive soil, since this summer will be the first growing season since the fire. If vegetation takes hold well, officials could revisit the closures in subsequent years.
"The first duty is to try to get the landscape recovered well and lots of people traversing the landscape isn't going to help that," Hahn said. "It takes a while for a place to heal itself and it's going to take longer here than in a lot of places because of the kind of soil and the steepness of the ground."
"It's going to need nurturing and a little care from all of us to get to the point where it's on its feet again."