One year has not softened the charred, skeletal forests consumed by the Calwood Fire.
While Cal-Wood Education Center staff members have worked tirelessly alongside Boulder County and other organizations to clean up after the wildfire tore through 600 acres of Cal-Wood property in October 2020, the view from atop several clear-cut hills is still almost entirely black.
Up close there are hints of new growth. Grass has returned to some areas, and mullein and other plants are pushing through burned earth. The green needles of surviving trees are a stark contrast against hillsides covered in scorched pines.
The center was already in dire straits last fall, said Executive Director Rafael Salgado, struggling to stay afloat through the pandemic after schools canceled programs at the center en masse. Overnight field trips from Front Range schools make up a majority of the center’s revenue, and since the pandemic began, Cal-Wood has has cut its operating budget by nearly 70% and laid off more than half of its staff.
“We were having a hard time, and then the fire happened, and it was like, you’re kidding me. Like we don’t have enough, or what?” Salgado said.
The Calwood Fire started in a ravine roughly half a mile from the center’s main lodge, but through a combination of luck, wind and fast-acting firefighters, none of the center’s buildings were destroyed.
But the magic of Cal-Wood is not contained within any four walls, and Salgado said seeing the ravaged forests where generations of children have learned and explored has taken an emotional toll.
Now Salgado and the center’s staff and board are wrestling with what’s next. They want to restore the forest, establish a wildfire research center and return to
their first mission, to connect kids with the mountains.
But whether any of that is possible is still unknown.
“If we go another semester without revenue from schools, I just don’t know how we can do that,” Salgado said. “I hope the community can keep supporting us so we can keep supporting the community and keep bringing kids here for years to come. We made it 40 years, and I think we can make it 40 more.”
Pandemic, then fire
Cal-Wood Education Center is typically bustling with activity year-round.
In addition to retreats, school field trips and summer camps, the center hosts programs for Latino families who want to learn more about the outdoors, offering different levels of roughing it — the first level starts in the center’s cabins, then a state campground, then camping on public land.
All of that came to a screeching halt in March 2020, and while the center has tried to bring some programs back, the bulk of its revenue comes from overnight school trips that were canceled all last year as well as this fall.
The center has two private school trips booked for the entire fall semester, whereas prepandemic it was typical to see groups of 100 students arriving twice a week.
For the first year, Cal-Wood squeaked by with all 25 employees through grant funding and federal relief loans. They worked on repairing buildings and installing new locks across the campus.
And then the fire started on Oct. 17, 2020.
The cause of the Calwood Fire is still unknown, and Salgado said he has no idea — not even a guess — at how it could have started.
“It started in a ravine that nobody has access to; nobody was there, and there was no reason for anyone to be there,” he said. “It was just so bizarre.”
Center staffers have put out a handful of fires over the years, Salgado said, whether from neglected campfires or lightning storms. But they were nothing like the fire that roared to life that windy Saturday.
“I knew for years that we were going to have a fire here at Cal-Wood, a serious fire, and I was working so hard to mitigate the whole property, but I just didn’t know when it would happen,” Salgado said.
The center mitigates 30 to 50 acres of forest per year, concentrating along trails, campsites and buildings, but Salgado still finds himself asking if he could have done more.
“We knew we needed to go up into the hills, too. We just didn’t have the resources,” he said.
Looking at how the fire impacted the forest makes it clear more aggressive mitigation is needed, he said.
One area mitigated in the ‘70s looks almost untouched one year after the fire burned through. There was enough space between the large ponderosa pines that the flames burned through grass and brush but never jumped to the trees.
Other areas where mitigation was too costly met a different fate, like a stand of 300-year-old Douglas firs that was destroyed.
“Seeing this property burn, it was personal. It was a big deal,” Salgado said. “A couple of times I have to let it go, the tears and all of that, because it’s just hard to see half the property burn, all the stories of kids exploring the forest — those stories are not going to be the same anymore.”
Center looks forward, but questions remain
Cal-Wood was closed for two months after the fire, Salgado said, and since reopening, staff has focused on cleanup and bringing back what programs they could.
The center was included in a federal grant that Boulder County received to protect the soil in burned areas through mulching, and Salgado estimates it was $600,000 worth of work that Cal-Wood would not have been able to afford.
Community members donated nearly $150,000 to the center after the fire, including donations from children who’d visited Cal-Wood and asked their parents to send money to the center instead of receiving a birthday gift.
But there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the future of Cal-Wood.
The center is working with the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University and other organizations to conduct research on the land. There are currently 14 research projects ongoing, including one to study on how trees that appeared to have been killed in the blaze are actually recovering.
Trees that are entirely brown after a wildfire are dead trees, Salgado said, and marked to be cut down.
But across the property, some of the brown trees have started to sprout green needles, something that’s remarkably rare, Salgado said.
Cal-Wood leaders hope to formalize those projects into a permanent research center to track the restoration and mitigation efforts, though whether that comes to fruition largely depends on funding.
There’s also a question of how to restore the forest. Should nature be allowed to take its course? Should Cal-Wood staff and other organizations disperse seeds and plant trees? All of those questions have yet to be answered.
In the meantime, Cal-Wood and its community are still healing.
One year after the fire, the stumps of seven trees destroyed by the fire been transformed into a memorial created by local students.
CU Boulder graduate student Amy Hoagland led a workshop in August at a week-long field program run by CU Science Discovery, Thorne Nature Experience and Nature Kids/Jóvenes de la Naturaleza. Local teenagers traced the rings of seven trees that were burned and later cut down, and Hoagland digitally traced the students’ tracings so they could be laser-etched on mirror-reflective stainless-steel plates.
On Saturday, community members and students came together to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the fire and see the memorial, “Reflections of the Future,” for the first time.
“The plates reflect the surrounding landscape, the trees and the mountains, and are a message of hope,” Hoagland wrote in an email. “I think it is important that there is space for the community to gather and be present in the wake of a changing climate.”