FORT COLLINS, Colorado (CBS4) – For many Larimer County businesses that operate in and along the Powder and Big Thompson Canyons, the lasting impacts of the Cameron Peak fire are greater than those of when the fire was actively burning in 2020. Workers Recreational industries, like fly fishing and white rafting guides, say the 2021 floods caused by the historic fire had a huge impact on their business.
In July 2021, more than seven months after the Cameron Peak fire, historic and deadly flooding claimed the lives of four people in Poudre Canyon. The rain caused landslides, sending tens of thousands of charred trees, houses, vehicles and mud into the Powder River.
Weeks later, similar flooding, again caused by the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar, had a significant impact on Big Thompson Canyon.
The normally pristine waters, which provide drinking and irrigation water to millions of people, suddenly turned dark brown and at times seemingly black.
The water, filled with debris, sediment and mud, has become too dangerous to recreate. The quality of the water and the debris it contains have forced rafting and fishing companies to shut down during their peak trading season.
Mountain Whitewater is one of Colorado’s premier commercial rafting companies, operating out of Fort Collins. Guide Dalton Klein took CBS4’s Dillon Thomas on a guided excursion on the Powder River in July, just days after deadly flooding upstream. Yet long after the landslides, the water remained dark and cloudy.
âIt’s really dark,â Klein said of the water quality as he guided the raft downstream. âSo much of the debris is ash from the fire and debris from the mudslides, which is washed away in the river. “
Klein said some customers, many of whom come to Colorado in the summer for outdoor activities, were unaware of the historic Cameron Peak Fire in 2020. When he took them rafting, he had to often explain why the water was so dark and cloudy.
âIt’s almost not whitewater rafting, it’s blackwater rafting,â Klein said during the trip.
â(The water) smells of ash, especially when the waves rise. It stinks really bad, âsaid one client as she paddled down the river.
Mountain Whitewater owner Brad Modesitt said after years of running his business he was ready for years of hardship to come after seeing the Cameron Peak fire.
âRight away I knew it was going to be devastating for the canyon,â Modesitt said. “Having faced other fires in the past, the aftermath of fires is sometimes the worst for our business.”
Rafting is a seasonal activity in Colorado. Mountain Whitewater typically has a 100 day window to make money in the canyons. As an outdoor business, Modesitt must rely on good weather and adequate water levels in the canyon to continue its operations. A day of outage due to lightning or low water is an entire day for which he cannot pay his seasonal staff.
When the deadly July flooding hit, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith and other emergency officials were forced to close the canyon for safety reasons. While CBS4 was working to cover up the tragedy in the canyon, some rafting companies were seen operating in the canyon against orders.
Modesitt understood why the shutdown was happening and complied, even if it meant he and his staff were losing money.
âWe had to cancel 120 people a day,â Modesitt said. “We have 74 employees who weren’t working all of a sudden.”
As he guided the raft down the Powder River, Klein reflected on the impact of the canyon’s closure on his ability to feed.
âIt can have a big impact on that next paycheck,â Klein said.
Rafting companies are not the only ones affected by the lasting impacts of the fire. The rental of cabins has stopped. Restaurants like the beloved Mishawaka were without customers for days.
Others, like Dan McGann of Elkhorn Fly & Rod in Loveland, have seen their business plummet as fishing dwindles.
Not only were the waters too fast and too dark for fish, but many fish in the rivers were killed after sediment filled their gills and choked them.
âLast year’s fire was pretty devastating,â McGann said. âWe’re starting to see the real impact of what’s to come. “
The Cameron Peak fire burned between Rocky Mountain National Park, Big Thompson Canyon, and Powder Canyon.
âOur permits are for Poudre National Park, Thompson and Rocky Mountain. So we were sort of in the triangle of terror as we called it, âMcGann said.
For nearly a month, between July and August, requests for fishing guides fell sharply. Tourists have either canceled or stopped booking their trips between the two canyons and the park.
â(The floods) were so quick and bad when they happened,â McGann said. “It looked like petroleum sludge.”
Rivers, even as they seeped into metropolitan areas like Fort Collins, continued to carry mud and debris.
âIt’s dark. It’s dark water,â said Adam Morris, a regular fisherman in Fort Collins. â(The Powder) is unusable strictly because you can’t see anything. The clarity is gone.
Morris lives in the area and has watched the Cameron Peak fire burn for months.
However, others who come to Colorado to fish for a vacation have often been baffled by the water quality in 2021, with some wondering what is causing it.
âMost people don’t realize this was caused by last year’s fire,â McGann said. “A lot of people are canceling trips.”
McGann and Modesitt both said they fear their businesses will continue to see fluctuating reliability on rivers because the burn scar will take years to fully heal.
âIt could get a little uglier rather than better,â McGann said. “Right now all we can do is go out there and try to stay positive.”
Elkhorn and Mountain Whitewater both worked to adjust their business model to continue to make money during the tough times.
McGann said he saw an increase in sales of supplies used for lake fishing.
Modesitt said they have opened “Paddler’s Pub” on their property, a music and drink venue that can operate even when the canyon is closed.
â(Water after the floods) is a pretty amazing thing for rafting,â Klein said as he finished his guided trip on the Powder.
Klein said he was thankful that guests still want to raft the river even after such a rough summer, and a scene they will likely see in years to come.
âI feel very grateful and lucky to be able to continue doing what I’m doing,â Klein said.
Modesitt and McGann both said they wouldn’t let the forecast of a decade of rough summers stop them from delivering a true Colorado outdoor experience to anyone who wants it.
âBeing a whitewater rafting owner is a lesson in resilience. We’ve been dealing with drought, floods, flash floods, whatever you want, âModesitt said. “We have to face Mother Nature and accept that this is going to happenâ¦ and go with the flow, I guess.”
âAnytime it rains, we’ll have to worry about it happening again,â McGann said. âIt’s not something that goes away. Trying to fight Mother Nature is a losing battle. She’s always going to win, and she’s showing her power right now.