Dave Anderson's Forest Journal: Lost River reopens for season, 6 months after October forest fire

By DAVE ANDERSON May 13. 2018 12:07AM
A National Guard helicopter drops water on the fire burning on Dilly Cliff in Kinsman Notch last October. (KATE WETHERELL)

Winter snow has finally melted, yet thick ice remains in shadowy recesses of caves at Lost River. The emerging poplar leaves bring a neon green hue to the monochrome mountain landscape still just reawakening.

Spring arrives late in the mountains. Lost River is located in a particularly cold pocket: rugged Kinsman Notch. The jumbled boulder caves are famed for a subterranean river - the "Lost River" - whose rushing waters disappear and reemerge in a spectacular natural gorge. Kinsman Notch was originally formed by a glacier that seems poised to return each year in late autumn. In summer, the natural air conditioning and natural beauty of Lost River have attracted generations of explorers for more than a century to this cool natural oasis during hot weather.

But things got really hot last October with just a week to go before the busy Columbus Day weekend and fall foliage tourism peak. Lost River was forced to close early. It's almost hard to recall after the long winter that a raging forest fire had scorched the steep ledges of the Dilly Cliff overlooking Kinsman Notch and Lost River Reservation in North Woodstock.

The fire started on Oct. 3 and burned for five weeks until it was officially declared out. The Dilly Cliff fire consumed 75 acres of steep terrain located on the White Mountain National Forest and on the Forest Society's Lost River Gorge. After a flare-up of hot spots on Oct. 17, the wind-driven heavy rain on the weekend before Halloween dampened the blaze for good. Soon after, snow returned to Kinsman Notch. Lost River Gorge had closed one week early to ensure public safety and provide a staging area during successful efforts to contain a fire burning on near-vertical terrain.

Heat-scorched needles of balsam fir trees are bright orange near the site of a controlled "burnout" fire started to keep the forest fire from advancing. (KATE WETHERELL)

The firefighting effort was as spectacular as the fire itself. In addition to federal and state resources from the U.S. Forest Service and New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, some 29 agencies including 19 municipal fire departments from both New Hampshire and Vermont contributed to the cause.

The first week of the fire required 355 firefighters on the ground with helicopters from the New Hampshire National Guard and JBI Helicopter Service overhead, dropping water scooped from the Beaver Pond at the foot of the Beaver Brook cascades.

State Forester Brad Simpkins says that after Oct. 8, state, federal and Woodstock fire personnel remained in smaller numbers on mop-up duty while monitoring hot spots until Nov. 7 when the fire was finally fully extinguished. While there have been larger fires in the past decade, none have burned for as long as the Dilly Cliff fire. It's longevity was due to the steep terrain, inaccessible recesses of the cliff and slopes of loose talus - boulders and loose rock.

A natural recovery

Six months later, colorful migrant songbirds are returning to forests surrounding the burned area. Warblers sing from the canopy of dark spruce trees mixed among the northern hardwoods: yellow birch, beech and red maple on the valley floor. At the foot of the cliffs, heat-scorched needles of balsam fir trees glow rust-red where the firefighters lit a controlled "burnout" to clear the thick understory and keep the fire from moving down slope toward the buildings, bridges, boardwalks and staircases at Lost River. It worked: the fire and aftermath had no direct impact on the facilities and attractions.

The former Dilly Cliff Trail is permanently closed. Forest Society staff and volunteers recently closed the trailhead. The trail had always been steep, but the fire has rendered it unsafe due to unstable footing and the potential for loose rock tumbling from the steep, burned-over cliffs. The best view of the cliffs is from Lost River and the parking lot, which is now open for the season.

Charred logs and stumps litter the forest floor near the Dilly Cliff fire in Kinsman Notch. The trail leading to the cliff has been permanently closed for sefty reasons. (DAVE ANDERSON)

The perimeter loop trail, the Kinsman Notch Ecology Trail, is open during daylight hours. The Forest Society is working to create a new map and sign for the trailhead kiosk including information about the October fire.

The forest will recover, starting with lush spring growth in areas with increased sunlight. The spruce trees growing beneath the cliffs remain green but their trunks are charred. Other evidence of the fire includes heat-scalded needles of the conifers: balsam fir and spruce. 

The hardwoods may fare slightly worse depending on heat damage to their thin bark. The bark of northern hardwood trees is not well adapted to fire, even a fast-moving ground fire intentionally set as a burnout. Charred trunks of yellow birch, beech and maple evidence more damage than would the thick, corky bark of more fire-adapted trees in southern New Hampshire: the pines and oaks which do not grow in the higher elevations and northern latitudes.

Forests in the interior of the White Mountains are an environment where fire is exceedingly rare, particularly a crown fire with flames burning into the tops of the forest canopy. But the forest is resilient, and recovery will proceed rapidly, such that in a few years, evidence of the fire will be hard to recognize.

"We're super psyched to be reopening, especially after the season was cut short last October," said Kate Wetherell, manager of Lost River for White Mountains Attractions. "We just want to emphasize to visitors that Spring arrives rather stubbornly in Kinsman Notch. Waterfalls are rushing and the river is running high with the recent snow melt and rainfall. Visitors can expect to see snow along the river and ice-filled boulder caves. 

"It is nice to see vegetation starting to turn green again."

Naturalist Dave Anderson is senior director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Reach him at danderson@forestsociety.org. Forest Journal appears every other week.
Dilly Cliff seen last week from Lost River, six months after the fire. Spring - and new growth - is just now coming to Kinsman Notch. (DAVE ANDERSON)

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