Riding with fire

Video: Mrazek Trail affected by Two Bulls Fire

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Unless you were one of those west-side Bend residents who had to prepare for a possible home evacuation last month, you may think the Two Bulls Fire had little effect on your life.

But seeing firsthand the devastation that forest fires can have on our outdoor recreation opportunities might change your thinking.

The Two Bulls Fire burned through about half a mile of the popular Mrazek mountain biking and hiking trail west of Bend. That part of the trail is now closed, and a short, marked detour along forest roads is in place. The trail will likely be rerouted by this fall.

Looking last week at the damage the fire raged in that area, I felt for the first time personally affected by the fire. Sure, the damage could have been much worse. But in what is sure to be a busy fire season, what will the next blaze do to our trails?

The area of Mrazek through which the fire burned is just east of Shevlin Park, on the west end of Mrazek near Forest Road 4606.

Ponderosa pine and manzanita along the trail were burned to a crisp, and the surrounding terrain is covered in ash. Where once all you could see was trees, now Broken Top is clearly visible on the horizon.

It was like walking on a moonscape. Also, it smelled like a grill after a barbecue. But soon enough, the singletrack twisted back into a green, healthy forest.

Phil Meglasson, a Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) volunteer and the “Phil” of the popular Phil’s Trail, is working with the U.S. Forest Service on a planned reroute of Mrazek.

“It looks like a disaster,” Meglasson said of the half-mile stretch of trail area that burned. “At least it’s not as bad as it could have been. I was surprised the fire made it that far south.”

Farther north is where most of the damage occurred. The Two Bulls Fire burned some 6,100 acres of the nearly 33,000-acre proposed Skyline Forest. The Deschutes Land Trust, a land conservation group based in Central Oregon, has been trying to acquire the land from Cascade Timberlands for several years, hoping to preserve it for wildlife and recreational use.

An extensive network of mountain biking and hiking trails weaves through Skyline Forest. Longtime Bend resident Bob Woodward has spent lots of time riding his mountain bike on those singletrack trails, before and after the recent fire.

“Most of the key trails burned to a crisp,” Woodward said of Skyline Forest. “They’re ridable, but the surroundings are eerie and sad.”

Last week, I rode onto the Mrazek Trail from Forest Road 4606 off Skyliners Road, cruising along the singletrack that was hardly dusty for such a dry season. After about a mile or so, I came to the “closed” sign, and I paused to survey the dramatically altered landscape.

Meglasson said the short section of trail is likely to remain closed for the remainder of the summer as Forest Service crews perform “rehab” work on the area before Meglasson and other COTA volunteers build the new singletrack.

The reroute of the Mrazek Trail is necessary not because of the damage from the fire itself, but because the heavy machinery that cut the dirt fire line went right through part of the singletrack. Meglasson said only about a quarter-mile segment of the trail will require a reroute.

“It’s not a lot,” Meglasson said. “We’ll move the trail a little bit north of where it was. It burned pretty hot there. It’s not going to be a huge job. But it’s pretty heavy manzanita brush where we’ll build the trail. It’ll probably all get done in one day if we have about 10 people. The time-consuming part will be digging up the manzanita roots.”

After surveying the scorched area near Mrazek, I continued east along the singletrack, climbing for several miles along one of my favorite trails. When I arrived at the burn area from the 1979 Bridge Creek Fire, I was reminded just how often forest fires hit Central Oregon.

I turned around and descended fast along Mrazek, cruising over a few small bumps and jumps and turning along the twisty curves of the pristine singletrack through the Deschutes National Forest. The 18-mile out-and-back ride was affected only briefly by the detour. Half a mile of burned area along the 14-mile trail is really not that terrible.

The trails in Skyline Forest are a different story.

Brad Chalfant, executive director for the Deschutes Land Trust, is staying optimistic but also warning the public to stay off the burned trail areas in the Skyline Forest because they are unsafe.

“There are a lot of snags that will likely fall and the potential that the ground underfoot could collapse from root systems that have burned out,” Chalfant said.

He noted that some areas in Skyline burned hot, some lightly and some not at all.

“It’s going to take a while, but the forest and trails will no doubt bounce back from the fire,” Chalfant said. “The forest has burned before and it certainly will burn again. For the foreseeable future (with fewer trees), much of the forest and trail system will be more open.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: Mountain Bike Trail Guide, by Bulletin sports and outdoors writer Mark Morical, features various trails in Central Oregon and beyond. The trail guide appears in Outdoors on alternating Wednesdays through the riding season.

Mrazek Trail

Directions: From Bend, drive or ride 3.3 miles west on Newport Avenue as it turns into Shevlin Park Road. After crossing Tumalo Creek, turn left into the park and look for the trail on the left. Ride the Shevlin Park trails to the south end of the park, where Mrazek begins by following Tumalo Creek and then turns up and out of the park.

Trail Features: A long singletrack trail that includes a gradual climb when ridden westward, and a long, sustained descent when ridden eastward.

Distance: The trail itself is 14 miles, but it can be linked to other trails in the upper Phil’s Trail system for a much longer loop.

Rating: Aerobically intermediate, and technically intermediate.

For more information on the trail closure on Mrazek, contact Amy Tinderholt at the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District at 541-383-4708.

For more information on the proposed Skyline Forest, call the Deschutes Land Trust at 541-330-0017.