May 24, 2013 Updated: May 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm
PIKE NATIONAL FOREST- Tom Tassia remembers what it was like to revisit his favorite fishing spots after the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
"With the (2002) Hayman fire, basically all of the black washed into the streams. The area was virtually unfishable for close to five years," said Tassia, of Colorado Springs. "We went up to (Denver Water's) Cheesman Reservoir after it reopened last year and we don't believe there's a single fish in the water."
So when the U.S. Forest Service opened the gates to Rampart Reservoir Friday, after nearly a year of being closed because of the most destructive fire in state history, the Waldo Canyon fire, he didn't know what to expect.
Tassia found out Rampart Reservoir, where he has fished for three decades, was mostly spared. And the fish were biting.
"Even though the fire occurred, the water's clear. We can see into the water. We can see the fish. It's fantastic," he said.
It was a day of jubilation and pleasant surprise for many at this popular recreation area northwest of Colorado Springs. During the worst days of the fire, the reservoir, campgrounds, trails and picnic areas seemed to be directly in the path of destruction.
Yes, there are pockets around the lake denuded of all life, dead matchstick trees jutting out of the sandpaper-like ground. And there are other areas where the decades-old ponderosa pines have been badly scorched but still survive. Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns the reservoir, estimated 18 percent of the watershed was burned.
"Certainly there are pockets of devastation but there are also pockets where you can't see the devastation or anything," said Brian Tassia, fishing from a spot where he could see no dead trees.
"I was expecting to see more of a burned area right around the whole lake, but there's only a few spots down close to the lake. That's a good thing," said George Stoddard, of Woodland Park, floating and fishing on a small inflatable pontoon boat.
Still, there were plenty of signs that things are different. The loop trail around the lake, popular with mountain bikers and hikers, is open but has signs warning of falling trees. "Forest closed" signs line forest to the south and east. Rampart Range Road is closed from the reservoir southeast to Colorado Springs, where the dirt road runs through some of the steepest and most devastated terrain.
The road across the dam and the boat ramp on the north side remain closed, because of low water levels rather than the fire, meaning the north side of Rampart is a quiet wilderness, green except for one brown patch that marks the fire's northern-most advance.
There were some disappointments, too. Some are unhappy about the boat ramp closure. For now, only hand-launched boats are allowed at the reservoir.
David McCambridge drove up in hopes of claiming his favorite campsite for the holiday weekend, past the reservoir on Rampart Range Road, down a little dirt trail.
"These little trails, they're off the beaten path, away from people, right on a ridge. It was a gorgeous view of Pikes Peak," he said. But the road closure past the reservoir made it unreachable, and he acknowledged that "it's probably not as pretty as it once was, for sure."
The three Forest Service campgrounds at the reservoir are open, and were largely untouched by the flames. By mid-day Friday, only a few campers had claimed sites in the Thunder Ridge, Meadow Ridge and Springdale campgrounds, possibly because no reservations have been allowed due to the uncertainty of them reopening. They will operate on a first-come, first-served basis for now, though reservations may be allowed later this summer at recreation.gov.
Driving from the reservoir, it was clear just how much work has been done to reopen the area, entire hillsides were cleared either to halt the flames or to remove dangerous trees. In the most-damaged areas, very little grows, and when new ponderosa pines sprout up, it will still be 75 years before they bear seed.
Off in the distance, below even more distant snow-capped peaks, the Hayman burn scar was visible, still brown after all these years.