The scars of the Black Tiger Fire are still visible -- more than 20 years later -- on the flanks of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Bare, long-dead trees still poke out of the grassy meadows that now cover the mountaintop. In the years since the Black Tiger Fire scorched 2,000 acres and destroyed 44 homes in July 1989, aspen stands have also begun to creep up the slopes, and waist-high pine trees are now scattered across the landscape.
But it's a long way from the forested mountain it once was.
Now, some homeowners along Sugarloaf Road can look south and see the lingering signs of the Black Tiger Fire and then -- from the same spot -- turn north to see the land that was freshly charred by the Fourmile Fire, which burned more than three times the land and destroyed more than three times the houses as the Black Tiger Fire.
Last week, officials from an alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies began to work on a strategy for rehabilitating the land burned by the Fourmile Fire. If Sugarloaf Mountain is any guide, progress will be measured in decades, not years.
"It's not instantaneous. It's not as fast as the fire suppression," said Therese Glowacki, resource management manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space. "It all depends on how severe the burn was -- it could take decades. And it could come back in a totally different way. It might not come back as the dense type of forest they had there before. There could be more open meadows."
Glowacki is part of the newly minted Fourmile Emergency Stabilization Team, which is already gearing up for a rapid assessment of the burn area to determine what must be done immediately -- and what can wait for a few months, or even a few years.
"There's a big distinction between the emergency aspect of this and the long-term rehabilitation," said Craig Jones, who is representing the Colorado State Forest Service on the stabilization team. "Clearing culverts and water quality issues and things like that are literally done within a 14-day kind of window. Then we'll look for funding and start to move on."
The most immediate concern has mostly to do with keeping the burned soils still clinging to steep slopes in Fourmile and Sunshine canyons from sloughing after a heavy rain. The concern is so pressing that firefighters were already working to prevent a mudslide -- working to rehab the fire line -- before the emergency stabilization team could form.
"The actual fire line -- that was constructed either by hand or by bulldozers -- went down to the mineral soil. Those can vary, depending on what fuels are around, from 6 to 8 inches up to between 400 and 600 feet wide," said Greg Heule, spokesman for the Great Basin Type I Incident Management Team, which ran fire-fighting efforts.
Firefighters gathered duff -- leaves, branches and twigs -- to spread over the bare earth, and on steep slopes, worked to create water bars, which divert water off the fire line, preventing erosion.
The risk of severe erosion changes depending on the slope of the ground and the severity of the burn, Heule said.
"There's areas where the fire didn't even touch at all," he said, "areas were they had a nice, easy under-burn, and areas that are completely moonscaped. That's the area where the water is going to hit and just roll right off. It builds energy and drags along soil and ashes, branches and debris and everything else."
Some degree of erosion after a fire may be impossible to prevent.
The summer after the Overland Fire, which burned 3,500 acres of land above Jamestown in 2003, the tiny mountain town was hit by three mudslides, each burying the streets under feet of muck.
The same scenario unfolded in Boulder Canyon after the Black Tiger Fire. One rainstorm just a few months after the fire triggered a mudslide that actually destroyed a home that had escaped the flames. Erosion fences and logs that were installed on the slopes after the slide managed to hold back the soil and silt for much of the spring and summer, but in August 1990, a 30-yard wide mudslide ran down from Sugarloaf Mountain, closing Colo. 119 between Boulder and Nederland.
Water managers around Boulder are now preparing for the eventual flood of ash, dirt and debris that will likely wash into local waterways from the Fourmile Fire.
The city of Boulder -- the major water utility in the area -- does not have concerns about its drinking water, since its sources are mostly west and uphill of the fire. Even the Boulder Reservoir, which is northeast and downhill of the fire, draws its water largely from across the Continental Divide via the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
"None of the area drains into our supply, so from a drinking-water perspective, we're not impacted," said Ned Williams, Boulder's director of public works for utilities. "That said, the runoff is still going to happen. There will be some ash and lots of sediment that will be coming down Fourmile Canyon and into Boulder Creek and then running through town."
Williams said that the city will work with other agencies to try and manage that inevitable runoff, possibly building sedimentation ponds in the Fourmile Creek Drainage and installing fabric fences that can catch the soils before they hit the water.
Bracing for water impacts
The group that may be most at risk of having issues with their drinking water may be one of the groups that narrowly escaped the fire -- residents of Pine Brook Hills. While many homes in the mountains rely on wells for drinking water, Pine Brook Hills actually has a water district, which pipes water to more than 400 homes. And the district pulls its water from Fourmile Creek before storing it in a reservoir built in the neighborhood. The district quit pulling water from the creek in August, when the water levels began to get low, according to water district manager Robert deHaas.
"Within our (neighborhood) boundaries, we do not have any issues from the fire," he said. "But over in Fourmile -- it's going to have an impact on our water quality that we will be taking from there come this winter and spring."
DeHaas said he's gearing up to address those issues by working with the state health department, and he said the biggest concern will likely be an increase in "organic carbons" in the water, which can react with the disinfectant during treatment.
A couple of other water districts also serve parts of the burn area, but none are as directly impacted as Pine Brook Hills.
Concern over retardant
Some environmentalists are also concerned that area water quality could be impacted by the more than 148,000 gallons of fire retardant that was dropped on the fire from slurry bombers.
The U.S. Forest Service has been using chemical retardant to fight fires since at least 1955. But this summer, a federal judge ordered the agency to file an environmental impact statement on the use of the chemical mixture. The decision came after the Oregon-based nonprofit Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics spent years fighting the U.S. Forest Service in court.
"It's indisputably toxic; there's no question about that," said Andy Stahl, executive director of FSEEE.
Stahl said the toxicity of the retardant is a matter of scale.
"If you drop fire retardant in the Pacific Ocean, it's not toxic," he said. "But you drop it in a small mountain stream with greenback cutthroat trout in it, and you'll wipe the whole stream out for miles."
The Forest Service says it manages the threat by not dropping retardant within 300 feet of waterways.
On nature's timeline
All of the best-laid rehabilitation efforts to protect water quality and topsoil may make the area more livable and safer for humans, but it's not necessarily important for nature to recover as it normally would.
Despite general concerns that forests in the Front Range and across the West are denser than they were historically -- and therefore prone to more intense blazes that might not mimic naturally occurring fires of years past -- University of Colorado professor Tom Velben said that's not necessarily the case for the Fourmile Canyon area.
"I started working on fire history and fire ecology in Colorado in the early 1980s, and the first area that we did fire history work in was Fourmile Canyon," Veblen said. "We know that in the past, in the 19th century, we had a really high severity fire in approximately the same area. Following that there was pretty good recovery of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest in some places -- and in some cases, there wasn't very good regeneration."
Veblen said the forest's ability to come back is linked to seed sources. And even if there are trees around that didn't burn, there's no guarantee that the trees will produce good cones.
"We often don't get good cone crops," Veblen said. "We may have three, sometimes six years or more go by without a good cone crop."
And if the seeds are there, that doesn't mean weather conditions will be favorable for growth.
"It all depends on the climate," Veblen said. "The big uncertainty is whether or not weather conditions over the next few years will be suitable for tree seedlings to survive."
And Veblen and some of his colleagues are concerned that forest regeneration has been hindered in recent years by climate change, though there's more research that has to be done before they can know for sure.
"Since about 2002, we seem to be getting less tree regeneration than we got in the 19th century," he said. "Presumably, that's because we have a warmer and drier climate."
No matter what speed forest regeneration takes, it might not move quickly enough for some of the people who lost their homes in the Fourmile Fire.
Nearly 170 houses were burned, and many of those people are now considering whether to rebuild in the fire-scarred landscape. David Barnett, a CU philosophy professor who lost his Sunshine Canyon home, said he's leaning toward not rebuilding.
In part, he's concerned about whether the devastated landscape would turn a new home into a bad investment.
"It's so burnt around my house -- the trees and the land -- that I think it would be too risky of an investment," he said. "If I put all of that money into rebuilding my house, and I ever decided to sell that house, it would be close to worthless."
But even if he wasn't concerned about the investment, he isn't sure he'd like living in the burn zone.
"It's a burned-out moonscape," he said. "While we were there at the site, there were a couple of mini black tornadoes of ash. It looked pretty ominous."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.