Trails on fire…

The recent spate of veld fires in the Western Cape once again highlighted the vulnerability of our trail systems to this devastating occurrence. Not only are riders affected by closures, but of course our trail owners and peripheral businesses reliant on trail visitation have to bear the brunt of the resultant destruction, writes AmaRider’s Meurant Botha.

Trail owners not only face a revenue loss but can also expect a major increase in maintenance costs as well as repairs. Most wooden infrastructure and signage are generally lost and have to be replaced at great expense.

A sometimes unexpected result of a major fire is that the trail is exposed to a much larger erosion problem and not only the physical erosion of the tread surface, but because of general water flow from the burnt slopes dumping sediment on the trail. The trail generally has a stabilising effect on the side slope, particularly in the case of a contour trail. Repeated removal of sediment from the tread surface will be necessary for months after a fire.

The increased maintenance coupled with a loss of revenue can cause serious financial problems on a large trail system and is a consideration trail owners rarely make.

Where trails are developed in forests, the change in the local ecosystem from forest-based to open veld exposes the trail to much more environmental elements such as sun and wind, generally making for a much drier trail environment.

Forest cover not only provides a cooler and damper environment, but also provides a much larger deposit of natural debris of leaves and bark that helps keep the tread surface moist and compact. Trees also act as natural water receptacles which lead to a much more gradual and spread-out deposit of rainwater, preventing rapid water flow.

Trails running through open fynbos or veld are much drier and prone to dust build-up and of course much more exposed to wind and rain, speeding up erosion where trail gradients are too intense. This does not mean level and flat trails are immune to problems, in fact a trail built on too little a gradient cannot shed water and will probably be prone to sediment build-up, hence the importance of using grade reversals wherever possible to allow for natural drainage spots along the trail.

In short, a large fire can quickly change the suitability of a trail design in the particular location. Riders can assist with the rehabilitation of a burnt trail in several ways:

1)     Please adhere to warning and access postings related to the public access status of the trail. Where commercial forests are affected the forestry company will be rushing to salvage the timber before burnt trees die off and rot. It is only in rare cases where timber is completely destroyed so most of the wood can be sold after a fire. Apart from the forestry activity, the potential for injury due to falling trees is large and singletracks are best avoided until deemed safe by the relevant agency.

2)     Once reopened, stick to the original trail lines which are normally pretty well defined amongst the ash. The period before vegetation establishes itself is where we want to limit trail creep. Trail creep only enhances the impact of the fire so stick to the line.

3)     Although tempting, now is not the time to rake-and-ride new lines or simply free-ride down ash slopes with The Collective soundtrack blasting through your iPod. You may be ignorant to the fact, but understand that someone is probably trying to formally manage trail access in the forest and your actions cuts off any progress by the knees.

4)     Be on the lookout for opportunities to attend volunteer work days or donate to your locate trails lobby group.

Although fire is part of the natural cycle of regeneration, it is never a pretty sight when our favourite riding spots go up in flames. Spare a thought for those who have invested in these routes and support them by always ensuring you are riding with a permit and adhering to call and requests regarding access limitations when the unfortunate occurs.

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