Reflection: A year after the Dog Island Fire

By: Ryan McConnell, NCA Stewardship Coordinator, Colorado Canyons Association

Just after midnight on Saturday, August 15th, 2015 a devastating fire erupted in Ruby-Horsethief Canyon, home to a beautiful and typically serene, 25-mile stretch of the Colorado River corridor running through the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Colorado Canyons Association volunteers, who were on the river that night for our annual river clean-up trip, awoke to the smell of smoke.  Red sandstone mirrored flames in a stunning contrast to the black void of the star speckled night sky. Ash sauntered down only visible in the beams of our headlamps. We quickly gathered near the boats to discuss our safety. Calmly, the BLM River Rangers began to discuss our situation, quickly determining that we were safe at our campsite in the Black Rocks Campground. Surrounded by the Precambrian granite that gives the Black Rocks campground its name, no flames could reach us. The fire was raging on Dog Island just one bend up river, and a few campsites away from our crew of volunteers. Huddled together on rafts, boaters from those upriver camps were pushing into the water to escape the suffocating smoke. Waiting through the long night of ash, light, and echoes we worried about the group camping on Dog Island, at the heart of the fire. A fire ban was in place and natural night time ignitions are beyond rare…

Dog Island campsite. Photo: CCA

Dog Island campsite. Photo: CCA

At sunrise, we all noticed a group of boaters trying to casually float by while ignoring the calls of the River Rangers.  BLM motors started up and the group was promptly ushered to the beach.  After seeing their permit to camp at Dog Island, the story of what had happened began to unfold as Rangers took individual statements out of our earshot.  After the trip, and once the investigation was complete, we learned that despite the fire ban in the canyon that night, one of the campers staying on Dog Island decided to shoot a canopy of fireworks into the sky, starting several spot fires all around the camp. Whipped up by the evening’s heavy winds, the fires quickly became uncontrollable engulfing the island and the Black Ridge Wilderness on the south bank. One can only imagine the terror of seeing your camp riddled with small fires, trying to put them out, failing, and watching the flames become a 30-foot-tall inferno. As we watched the Rangers confiscate the remaining fireworks, we were collectively dumbfounded. Why? How could you even? That said, thankfully, no one was hurt and by early Sunday morning BLM fire crews had reached the remote location and successfully extinguished the fire. However, as the ashes cooled and the flames subsided, a devastating picture of reckless action and avoidable destruction emerged. Fifty acres of the popular Dog Island Campsite including 168 Cottonwood trees, each over 100 years old, were left charred or burned completely.

Dog Island just days after the fire. Photo: Chris Tomlinson

Dog Island just days after the fire. Photo: Chris Tomlinson

Now, a year later, CCA is working with the BLM to mitigate the ecological damage done by the fire. Since riparian systems have no natural defenses to fire, we expected little or no regeneration by native species like Cottonwood and Sumac and a massive boom in the growth of invasive species like Tamarisk and Cheatgrass who thrive on burnt landscapes. Although Dog Island is forever altered, CCA and the BLM are working hard to save the island.  To start the process, the BLM hired a work crew from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps to cut and apply herbicide to Tamarisk re-sprouts.  Tamarisk could easily dominate the island if left to its own devices.  CCA is currently recruiting volunteers to help the BLM catch infestations before they become uncontrollable.  (Sign up here!) Unexpectedly, Cottonwood sprouts are growing from the roots of burnt trees.  More than 200 sprouts have popped up all over the island.  This fall, the CCA River Restoration Team pruned the Cottonwood sprouts to help them become tall shade trees like their forbearers. Furthermore, volunteers planted ten Sumac shrubs on the island to build wildlife habitat and stabilize soils. By actively suppressing invasive and giving natives their best chances for survival, we can heal the island.

Gabe Magtutu, "I've been enjoying this stretch of river since 1981 and am happy I can get out there to help take care of it."

Gabe Magtutu, "I've been enjoying this stretch of river since 1981
and am happy I can get out there to help take care of it."

Several volunteers on the recent restoration trip were also present the night of the fire. Tom McNamara reflected on the past, “actions of a few morons affected the lives of many, then and now.” Yet, looking to the future he added “It is a pleasure spending quality time with motivated people with a purpose.  And yes, it can be a blast.” CCA will continue to restore Dog Island for years to come and will enjoy many delicious Dutch Oven meals along the way! (See a few recipes below!)  Our collective efforts to restore the rivers we love heals both the ecosystem and our frustration with our fellow river runners.  Together we can build a responsible culture of river users committed to protecting the wild Colorado River we love and stopping avoidable travesties from happening along the way! ~

CCA staffer Kate Graham and Gabe planting Sumac on Dog Island.

CCA staffer Kate Graham and Gabe planting Sumac on Dog Island.


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To raise funds for this important restoration work, CCA recently completed a 2017 calendar titled, “Dogs of the National Conservation Areas.” A portion of the proceeds from calendar sales will support this work.

Click here for info about purchasing a calendar! 


Recipes from the Dog Island Restoration Trip


DUTCH OVEN MANICOTTI 

By Kate Graham 

The sauce was just store-bought jars with a bunch of veggies added (sautéed up some onion and garlic, then added zucchini, mushrooms, edamame, maybe some bell pepper, cook it all down and added it to the sauce). Proper baking in a Dutch Oven will result in stellar taste, guaranteed!

So the run down:  Mix your cheese/spinach stuff together, stuff into shells, pre-package into zippy bags for transport to campsite (sauce can be prepped and packed into zippy bags as well), dump cheese-stuffed shells into DO, pour sauce on top, cook until bubbly all over.  Then stuff yourself until you can't move.  

  • 1 (15 ounce) container ricotta cheese
  • 1 (10 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • ½ cup minced onion
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 2(26 ounce) jars of spaghetti sauce
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1 (8 ounce) package manicotti shells
 

MARINATED CHEESE/OLIVES

By Claire knowles

Make cubes of cheese and place in bowl with olives of any kind, garlic and herbs (rosemary, bay leaf, black peppercorns) Pour some good olive oil over them and let marinate at room temperature for a few hours at least.  Serve on crackers or bread that has been crisped in oven with olive oil on it.  

I like to use extra sharp white cheddar, but if your budget allows, Manchego cheese is superb.