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Afterburn: Wildfires Don’t Have to be the Final Story of our Trails

As more forests sear every season, post-wildfire recovery is becoming the norm for North American trailbuilders, but they are learning how to make fires a beginning instead of an ending

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It starts with a spark. A love that grows from the smallest glow into a consuming passion—one that brings leagues of different people together to swoop through forests and roll over dirt. There are more hours embedded in our trails than is possible to count, whether you dug them or only use them. But just as a spark built this all up, it can also tear it down. Wildfires are becoming an increasing norm in the North America west, threatening and now burning a shocking number of cherished trail systems.

(Photo: Bruno Long )

Last summer alone bore witness to staggering losses: In California, dozens of Tahoe Basin trails burned, as did millions of dollars’ worth of work on Mount Hough near the town of Quincy. Oakridge, Oregon’s, epic Alpine Trail was briefly threatened, as was the iconic Whole Enchilada trail network in Moab, Utah. North of the border, in British Columbia, the famed Farm in Kamloops (a celebrated base camp for an immense jump line that’s been at the heart of the freeride scene for nearly two decades) burned away. The Interior of the province was also smothered in thick smoke for two solid months from nearby fires, making it near impossible to ride.

Having to tangle with infernos is now an inescapable reality for mountain bikers everywhere, as climate change and human mismanagement of our forests changes the fire regimes of most every environment we ride in. Learning to coexist with wildfire and adapt to this new mode of life is now more prescient than ever. The good news for riders is we can, there’s opportunity in the afterburn, and fires don’t have to be the final story of our trails.

Cam Lainchbury silhouetted on Wobbly Pops in Kelowna, a trail he built after the fire. Photo: Bruno Long
Rebirth, 18 Years In The Making

I spin slowly uphill and the tall pines disappear into a grassland dotted with blackened toothpicks. There used to be a forest here, but no longer. “What did this all look like before?” I ask Johnny Smoke, who pedals ahead of me. “Like over there,” he answers, pointing backward. The rolling hills on the west shore of Okanagan Lake, B.C., still have a solid fleece of evergreen covering them. Conversely, here in Okanagan Mountain Park, where the sun beats down mercilessly, it looks all but barren. That’s because an aggressive wildfire tore through in 2003, leaving nothing but rock cap, and laid waste to two entire trail networks: Crawford and Gillard.

Franz Unterberger leads Johnny Smoke on the Rock Oven trail in Penticton. Photo: Bruno Long

“The fire was so hot it created its own weather; it sucked all the topsoil away,” Smoke explains. Having earned his moniker 25 years earlier, during the glory days of the “Cranked” and “North Shore Extreme” films, his nickname is fitting—though I suspect he was originally a connoisseur of a different kind of smoke than the stuff that comes from wildfires. Now he lives in the Okanagan Valley, a place framed by fire; the ecology here requires it to crack seeds open and make new life.

Johnny Smoke. Photo: Bruno Long

 The landscape we’re in now, which is just south of the 130,000-person city of Kelowna, was shaded by Douglas fir and ponderosa pine two decades ago, but is now a shrubland. Smoke even refers to the bushes that have taken over the hillside as chaparral, a term most commonly used to describe the vegetation in Mediterranean climates (which this is not).

Cam Lainchbury follows Johnny Smoke down Yo Mama, in a Kelowna larch forest that has completely regenerated since it burned almost two decades ago. Photo: Bruno Long

Small stone cairns and wild rose bushes mark the way along the slick bedrock on a trail called Big Drop. It’s late June and the temperature during the day climbs into the 90s. Without any tree canopy, which burned away 18 years ago, it’s all the more toasty out here, but the sightlines are flawless. It feels more like riding in Moab or Sedona than B.C. Though it’s not the loamy riding this province is famous for, it’s still super fun, and is now seeing record numbers of riders each year as the sport and local population booms. 

The Okanagan is the fastest growing region in Canada. As such, after the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, the city of Kelowna helped rebuild the pedal-accessed Crawford network with the help of the Friends of the South Slopes. But over in Gillard, the adjacent DH zone, the rowdier riders were left on their own.

(Photo: Bruno Long )

In order to bring Gillard back, Smoke helped found MTBco, the club that now takes care of it. Today, Ryan McKenna is one of its two trail managers. He built many of the original lines in Gillard before the fire, and the conditions in the forest were so caustic afterward he questioned whether he wanted to bring them back.

Ryan McKenna built and then rebuilt Yo Mama and championed keeping the Gillard network alive after the fires in Kelowna. Photo: Bruno Long

“Building in a burnt forest is shitty,” he says. “Especially 10 years ago, it was even more shitty because it was just nothing but underbrush and rocks. After the fire, I spent the next three years trying to reopen my trails and reopen other people’s trails that were abandoned in the area.”

On top of the black ash that would cover a person over and clog chainsaws, the biggest difficulty was the loss of soil and wood to work with. Still, McKenna persisted, along with Cam Lainchbury (MTBco’s other trail manager), who saw the fire as a call to citizenship.

“When it burned, everyone that was an original builder walked away,” Lainchbury says. “Ryan still stayed on. And then I was like, ‘OK, this place is fun to me, I’ve got to build something, because nobody’s going to touch it.’ So that’s when I built Wobbly Pops, that was right after the fire. To me it was like, ‘I’ve got a fresh slate up here now, I’m going to build something I want to ride.’”

Ryan McKenna debarking some of the only usable timber left in Gillard. Photo: Bruno Long

Lainchbury’s new trails are fast and aggressive, with high-speed step-ups and gaps. For his part, he never saw the zone as ruined. 

“I think it’s almost better now,” he tells me. “It’s a different style of riding. Before the fire it was like North Shore skinnies in the trees and bigger drops. There were some good flow areas up here, but no one rides 15-foot-high skinnies anymore.”

The author in the Crawford network in Kelowna on the Big Drop trail. Photo: Bruno Long

One of the benefits of all the added bush, it turns out, is it helps disperse rainfall and avoid erosion. It does mean brushing is a much bigger job now, though. McKenna and Lainchbury also both avoid building with wood now because there just isn’t any up here anymore, and they have to haul it in. Instead, they armor and shore up the trails with rock, of which there is plenty.

When they show me Yo Mama, one of McKenna’s rebuilt trails, it’s clear there’s plenty of another thing, too: regeneration. The young larch forest taking over is so dense you’d have no chance walking through it. The area around Yo Mama is fortunate because there was soil left behind. Where there wasn’t, it takes an incredible amount of time for the biome (all the plant and animal life that decomposes) to build it back up. It’s likely not something we’ll see in our lifetime.

Franz Unterberger leading the author down the Rock Oven trail in Penticton. Photo: Bruno Long

Still, standing in this one patch of excited new forest, Lainchbury and McKenna both feel Gillard, today, is a good-news story.

“Once we get a climb trail up here this place is going to be insane,” Lainchbury says, his prized zone glowing with rebirth 18 years after it was reset by flames.

Johnny Smoke, the author and Liam Cushing topping out in the Crawford zone in Kelowna. (Photo: Bruno Long)
The Cost of Recovery

The pleasing summertime weather in the Okanagan, along with an abundance of lakes and vineyards, makes it one of the more densely populated areas in Interior B.C. It in fact bears a striking resemblance to Southern California, where intense numbers of people also live right in the urban-wildland interface—a place extremely prone to burning.

Dillon Osleger knows this all too well. SoCal is proving to have one of the most severe wildfire return cycles in the world. That’s because invasive species renew the fuels in the grasslands year after year, so the same areas burn all over again. When I reach Osleger to talk about this, he’s exhausted. It’s not even July and half the national forests in the American west are closed due to record drought. He’s been working in the dry heat for weeks, tossing around dirt that just won’t stick.

A typical SoCal trailbuilding scene—drought-ridden dirt, hot and dusty. (Photo: Dillon Osleger)

As both an earth scientist and the executive director of Sage Trail Alliance (STA) in Santa Barbara, California, Osleger has had to develop his own rapport with fire. He manages about 250 miles of trail in SoCal, but also an increasing amount around Lake Tahoe, in Northern California. He figures about 50 percent of his work is responding directly to wildfire damage—but in the grand scheme of things, it touches everything he does. He jokes that it’s his job security.

“When it comes to politics, all of it is now forest-fire related,” he tells me. “Like 90 percent of what I talk about to city, county, Forest Service, everything is fire-related. And when you want to get money for trails nowadays, you’re calling them firebreaks. It’s basically access for fire crews to get into places for the sake of the U.S. government.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the price of fighting forest fires in the U.S. went from an average of $425 annually between 1985 and 1999, to $1.6 billion between 2000 and 2019. For a lot of years that meant national forests had to borrow from their operational budgets to fight fires, and this bled accounts dry for working on trails, let alone rehabilitating them after fires. That department’s total tally for deferred maintenance (work that’s been put off to later) currently sits at over $5 billion for the whole U.S., and growing. And trails only represent about 5 percent of the infrastructure waiting to be fixed, which includes roads, bridges and wastewater systems.

Dillon Osleger has found creative ways to rebuild trails amid today's wildfire-susceptible reality, such as describing them as firebreaks. Photo: Dillon Osleger

As such, the Forest Service leans on partnerships with organizations like the STA to maintain and rehabilitate trails. Another way to look at it is mountain bikers rely on the Forest Service to let them take care of their own infrastructure—otherwise no one would.

When it comes to fire, the STA, which logs upwards of 4,000 volunteer hours a year, often works with grants from recovery funds. Those include organizations like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The trick is the bureaucracy of this process leaves a two- to three-year gap before the STA usually gets to tackle fire-impacted trails, leaving them out of commission for a solid chunk of time.

“The money’s all tied up in firefighting, it’s harder [to get now],” Osleger says.

The real locals sometimes emerge during a dig day. (Photo: Dillon Osleger)

Compared to the crumbly young mountains of SoCal, Northern California has a much older ecology on more stable ground. So while losing forests around trail beds in the upper half of the state is devastating, in the southern climate, you lose the trail bed, too.

“It’s not like fire isn’t natural,” Osleger explains. “It’s just this feedback cycle where the more it burns the more invasives you get, and then the more it burns again. Honestly, the biggest issue with fires down south is losing all the soil. It just slides off down the slope, falls into a river, ends up maybe in the ocean or just damaging wildlife in the river.”

Those routes, he says, are not salvageable, in most cases. Too much of the decomposed granite that makes up the trail bed gets compromised. The only solution is to move over and rebuild in a new spot. Fires in SoCal are burning so hot these days that even the iron girding on retaining walls melts and fails. 

Trail maintenance has become increasingly difficult with the ever-shrinking window to use chainsaws in the dry, fire-prone forests. (Photo: Dillon Osleger)

As to how you deal with a riding environment constantly threatened by fire, Osleger’s notes simple things like putting out your campfire, or even not parking your hot vehicle in tall grass. Humans start most of the fires in SoCal. In that regard, signage and education might be the best tools for the time being. That, and resilience. It’s simply going to be a lot of work to keep up trails for the foreseeable future, and there’s no way around that. With the window of time to use power tools in the bush shrinking each summer (due to the risk of sparks during dry season), Osleger confesses the increasing difficulty of maintenance and repair does at times bog him down. Still, he’s learned to cope with it.

“If I’m working on a trail now, I don’t really assume it’s going to be more than 10 years before it’s impacted again in some way. You have to learn to let go. People build trails with this idea of permanence, and then they have to just live with them. But the fires give you kind of that redo chance.”

The new normal, increasingly. Photo: Bruno Long
Unpredictable and Unprepared

Over in Oregon, Gabriel Amadeus Tiller has developed a similar outlook to Osleger. Tiller is the executive director of the Oregon Timber Trail Alliance, which is trying to connect a 700-mile bikepacking route that will bisect the state. About 500 miles of that is old trail built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during World War II, and the efforts to revive it have become a two-steps-forward-one-step-back endeavor, thanks to wildfire.

“We’ve been at it for six years, and in the past three we’ve seen 50 miles of the 700 burn,” says Tiller. “So definitely not insignificant. You know, 50 miles is a lot of singletrack to get wiped out like that.”

If that trend keeps up, it could mean the entire trail could potentially swerve through fire-affected forest in about 40 years. While the OTTA could theoretically stay on top of that in terms of rehabilitating the trail tread and making it ridable, it begs the question of whether anyone would want to ride through that much burnt land, and if the riding experience would be worth anything.

Local trail group leaders like Gabriel Amadeus Tiller have had to ponder whether riding through a burn zone takes too much away from the experience. Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

“The landscape itself is certainly damaged,” Tiller says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a good thing, but I’d say it’s reality we’re all going to have to accept. There’s really no way to avoid fire, especially with climate change. … The trail characteristics themselves, [the rehab] is going to make the trail a lot more fun, but the landscape will take many decades to recover.” 

This means that if the fire return cycle doesn’t worsen, the likely scenario will be one where different parts of the trail regenerate at different rates based on when they get affected. It’ll serve as a kind of physical record of the landscape’s history. That idea, along with the fact the trail would have a kind of interpretive educational value, is part of what keeps Tiller going, even in the face of many unknowns.

“If I'm working on a trail now, I don't really assume it's going to be more than 10 years before it's impacted again in some way. You have to learn to let go. People build trails with this idea of permanence, and then they have to just live with them. But the fires give you kind of that redo chance.”

“We’ve been seeing fire seasons start earlier each year and then extend later,” adds Lori Daniels. She’s a wildfire expert from the University of British Columbia, which shares a similar climate to Oregon. “I think last year was a little bit shocking, there were a lot of fires in Washington and Oregon, and in Oregon they were on the west side of the Cascades, so in the coastal temperate rainforest side. So we know that westside forests in the coastal temperate rainforest can burn under the right drought conditions.”

Forest management practices have led to immense fuel build-up in forests, resulting in more catastrophic results when fires do start. Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

Here, Daniels echoes Tiller’s concerns about unpredictability. She explains that climate change is driving drought, pest infestations (like bark beetles that kill trees), and increased lightning activity. (Models suggest lightning will increase by 12 percent with every degree of warming the planet sustains.) What’s more, our forestry practices, which have placed a high value on preserving timber for the last 100 years, have built up enormous fuel stands that would have historically cycled in smaller more manageable fires more frequently. As a result, Daniels points to fire regimes that we are not at all prepared for.

Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

“What we’ve been seeing, if we go south of the [Canadian] border, where the heat dome came from and developed this summer, is they too are in extreme drought conditions [like B.C.]. The paleo-ecological records are saying this is the worst drought in thousands of years.”

The other problem is urban-wildland interface: Our populations are growing massively in the places where these fires start, and humans are sparking at least half of them. But, in an odd way, that’s good news. It means half of these blazes are within our means to control.

Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

“We can manage the forests to make them more resistant to fire and more resilient and allow them to recover afterwards,” Daniels continues. “So those kinds of initiatives are ongoing, especially in the dry forests, which are high priority; they’re the ones that have been highly altered through fire suppression. So if we maintain the wildlife habitat, we maintain the protection and cover for shade, then we’ll maintain high-recreation-value locations, but we reduce the risk it will burn at high intensity.”

Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

As an example of good management, Daniels points to strong evidence that Indigenous peoples regularly did controlled burns to avoid massive blazes, before European settlement in North America. She notes that this kind of practice still happens in Mexico, where there are today far less damaging wildfires, despite the hot climate.

In the context of trails, that means mountain bikers have a role to play, too. As a major presence on the landscape, we need to advocate for and help adapt our playgrounds. Daniels uses the mountain bike club in Williams Lake, B.C., as an example of an organization with the right mindset. 

Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

“I know they have been interacting with and collaborating with their community forest managers, and that creates win-win solutions. Williams Lake was the epicenter of those fires that started on July 7 in 2017 [and the region was evacuated for most of the summer]. … Some of it was around trying to make decisions: Where do we put trails? Where would it be good to have a fuel break? Where would be places that maybe we wouldn’t want to put in trails? And those might be avoidance from a fire perspective, or again, it’s a community forest with multiple values, right? So there might be some cultural reasons, or there might be some habitat that was important. So working together on some of those sorts of objectives [is important].”

This also means not resisting thinning around trails, where that might change the visual experience, or instances where access might be altered. All of which is a tough pill to swallow for a lot of riders, but less tough than seeing entire networks go up in smoke.

The author, Johnny Smoke, Ryan McKenna and Cam Lainchbury wind along an environment of old burn and new growth in Kelowna. Photo: Bruno Long

With snow-capped volcanoes punctuating the skyline throughout the Cascades and Coast Range, and high desert lining the eastern part of the state, Oregon is a cornucopia of vistas, and a mountain bike is an amazing way to link it all—and more, understand it. 

“We broke the Timber Trail into four tiers,” Tiller tells me. “It really travels in these distinct landscapes across the state. The Watson Fire was in Basin Range country, in pretty dry, sunny, wide-open expanses. The Deschutes and the Hood tier each have their own characteristics as well. Oakridge is next and that’s the polar opposite: really dense, dark green forests. Historically the Fremont tier was primarily ponderosa forest that had a lot of widely spaced stands of ponderosa, savanna and meadows that were really well adapted to fire, and actually kept the competing understory down and allowed the ponderosas to thrive. But we either planted or replaced that with lodgepole pine, and with fire suppression those lodgepole stands got really thick. The thickness of those stands helps the beetle infestation spread. So you end up with a stand that’s way more prone to fire than historically it was.”

Bark beetle infestations have also made some forests much more prone to fire than they were historically. Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

Thanks to bark beetles, when the OTTA first started working in the area the Watson Creek Fire would eventually burn, it removed 542 dead trees that had fallen on the trail over one single mile. That was basically a stacked fire pit, waiting for a spark. A rancher ultimately provided one from a vehicle, and up it all went. That’s what made the Watson Creek Fire so severe, ultimately claiming close to 59,000 acres. That’s also why the OTTA hired a professional to tackle rebuilding that section of its trail, and the selection process included having experience rehabilitating burnt trails.

Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

“The part that we hired the professional trailbuilder to do is completely nuked,” Tiller says. “There’s very little soil to work with and it’s up on this rim that’s 3,000 feet above the valley floor, so it’s a lot of really chunky bedrock that we’re working with. It needs a bit more of a professional touch. It’ll be a cool trail when it’s done, but the trailbuilding there is pretty difficult. But he’s going to do amazing things with it. We’re all really excited, the views are going to amazing.”

Franz Unterberger leads the author into the Rock Oven trail in Penticton's Skaha Provincial Park. Photo: Bruno Long
A “Good” Fire

Back in the Okanagan, in the smaller city of Penticton, afterburn tells another story. The Christie Mountain fire that hit Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park in late August and September of last year did its work in one of the most popular recreation spots in the province. It’s a busy climbing area, but also home to the Rock Oven trail, one of the most marquee in Interior B.C. 

When I get special permission to check it out with a small group (which includes photographer Bruno Long, local Franz Unterberger, and the infamous Johnny Smoke), supervised by park ranger Becky Hyde, no one knows what to expect. But as we pedal into the charred forest, our spirits quickly lift. The trail tread is intact, and most of the tall, old-growth pines still look as though they’ll bounce back. Undergrowth is emerging in green accents from a bed of soot that Hyde says was knee-deep last September.

Unterberger cuts through the char on Rock Oven. Photo: Bruno Long

She tells me the scene isn’t disheartening so much as interesting; it’s the natural process, and this appears to be an example of a good fire. This was necessary and natural, and the fire behaved as it was meant to. Though the canopy is gone and you can see right through the woods, Unterberger—who loves this trail deeply—thinks Rock Oven is not even close to ruined; he’s relieved to see there’s not so much as a single tree down on it. Without any shade for the foreseeable future, he might not ride this particular trail during the hottest hours of the day anymore, but you would never really do that in Penticton anyway, he says. 

We follow the rolling smooth rock up and over the mountain, and drop down along the border of the provincial park, where the fire was suppressed at the edge of a residential neighborhood (it only burned one home), and are all emphatic that it remains a fantastic ride. On his end, Smoke is completely unsentimental about the compromised scenery. So long as the trail is still good, he sees low-intensity fires like this one as a good thing. 

The city of Kelowna framed by remnants of fires past from the parking lot of the Gillard DH zone. Photo: Bruno Long

“It’s not that I’m resigned to the idea it’s going to burn,” he insists. “It’s that this is the environment, it requires fire. You know, if you think it’s going to be the same all the time and never change you’re wrong. In fact it would be better if we had more small fires instead of these big ones that roll through.”

In that sense, faced with unprecedented amounts of change in the landscape and the planet’s climate, one of the best things we can do is change with it. And the first place to start is with our minds.

Photo: Bruno Long