By Dillon Thomas

LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – In the wake of the historic Cameron Peak Fire hundreds of miles of hiking trails through Larimer County were destroyed, damaged or simply made impassable due to charred and toppled trees. Most of the trails run through U.S, Forest Service land, property which is operated by a small staff of workers who cannot singlehandedly restore the hundreds of miles of trails impacted by Colorado’s largest fire on record.

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To restore the dilapidated pathways through Colorado serenity, a growing group of volunteers have volunteered to take on the task.

The Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, a nonprofit organization which works directly with the National Forest Service, has spent countless hours in 2021 rebuilding and restoring the trails impacted by the Cameron Peak Fire in Larimer County.

CBS4’s Dillon Thomas was invited to join the volunteers as they hiked miles into the burn scar to repair trails, giving the public their first glimpse into areas of the Cameron Peak Fire never before seen by non-first responders.

“It’s still a beautiful piece of nature up here, it’s just been impacted by the fire,” said Bob Manuel, Trail Crew Leader for Poudre Wilderness Volunteers.

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One year before the PWV started their work the Cameron Peak Fire torched its way through the same landscape. The nearly 209,000 acre fire charred trees without hesitation, at times burning nearly 80,000 acres in a matter of just two days.

As the fire raged to the east, sprinting toward the Fort Collins area, trails frequented by Coloradans were caught in the blaze. Future-PWV volunteers watched from the Front Range as the fire cast an eerie red glow over cities like Greeley, Windsor and Fort Collins.

“It was almost apocalyptic, seeing the blood red skies in the morning. And ash raining down, and pine needles that were coming from trees,” said Cat McAteur, a volunteer.

The raining ash and pine needles were coming from the blaze which was burning more than 20 miles away from the City of Fort Collins. However, standing from towns as far away as western Greeley, flames from the Cameron Peak Fire could be seen burning the mountainside at night time.

“It burned the trees. a lot of the tress. When it burned it also burned some of the ground structure underneath which causes some water to damage the rest of the trail,” Manual said.

The damage the fire caused to the trail system could shutter hundreds of miles of trails permanently if not addressed sooner than later.

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Manual said the PWV has offered to step up and start restructuring the trail system.

Most of the trails were built in the 1930s by the Colorado Conservation Corps. While built to withstand foot traffic, most of the trails were not designed to survive a record-breaking fire.

“The fire loosens up the rocks. It heats the ground on the rocks and it heats the ground around the rocks. And then you’ll get rocks that slough off,” Manual said. “It’s pretty much a tragedy if you think how beautiful this trail was prior to the fire and what it is now.”

Manual said the PWV wanted to step up and help solidify the literally-crumbling trails while also clearing thousands of toppled dead trees from the trails. Something the Forest Service would have a difficult time doing on their own.

“Right now, there’s only I think two actual wilderness rangers that are left on the district,” Manual said.

Volunteers helped saw down toppled trees, move rocks that slid onto the trails and also rebuild pathways that have collapsed due to miniature landslides.

“The extent of it is almost unimaginable,” McAteur said.

Volunteer Taylor Weisshaar said when the fire was burning in 2020 he couldn’t help but to watch and think about what the blaze was doing to the trails he’s come to love.

“We watched everything burn, and all of our favorite trails burn,” Weisshaar said.

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Weisshaar said he learned about the PWV and decided to give his time as a way to make sure other Coloradans in the future will be able to enjoy the landscape he loved.

“After a year like last year, (PWV) need as much help as they can get,” Weisshaar said.

“Even just being out here for a couple hours, I have a whole new appreciation for what goes into trail maintenance,” McAteur said. “And just the things that I take for granted and that everyone who visits Colorado and lives in Colorado don’t necessarily see all of the work, all of the engineering planning that goes into just having a trail. And that’s without a massive fire ripping through.”

Hydrologists speculate that the Cameron Peak Fire will have lasting impacts on the region’s soil for at-minimum 10 years.

Fortunately, for those who enjoy the trail system, the charred landscape can still serve as an outdoor oasis courtesy of volunteers like those with Poudre Wilderness Volunteers. Even if the mountainside looks destroyed, small glimpses of life are already returning as grasses and flowers rise from the scar.

“We try to make sure it’s going to stand the test of time,” Manual said. “We hope this is a one in a thousand year type of thing. But, with climate change the way it’s going, we never know what’s going to happen,” Manual said.

Dillon Thomas