Five years ago today, a heat wave enveloped Colorado. Temperatures had reached 90 degrees all week; humidity was low, and high winds were hot and mean.
It was a prelude to six weeks of hell as an unprecedented wildfire, its fury mounting, engulfed much of the drought-ravaged Pike National Forest.
The Hayman fire started on June 8, 2002, when flames jumped a campfire ring near Tarryall Road in Park County. By the time it was finally contained on July 2, it had become the largest fire in Colorado history.
Named for its starting point, a pioneer homestead in Tappen Gulch just off Tarryall, the fire consumed 215 square miles of forest, an area larger than the city of Colorado Springs. Seventy square miles of forest were severely burned; the rest was left charred as the fire's flames leapt capriciously over roads, stands of trees and homes.
The fire, started by Forest Service employee Terry Barton, was a monster, reaching its arms toward Woodland Park, Palmer Lake and Denver's suburbs. At its most vicious, it came within seven miles of Woodland Park and five miles of the tiny Douglas County town of Roxborough.
At one point, Woodland Park was within 15 minutes of a mandatory town evacuation. Palmer Lake residents were asked to leave, and residents of small communities that had grown in the forest were barricaded from the roads that led to their homes.
The fire's financial toll on federal, state and local government and on Colorado residents hit an estimated $238 million, including rehabilitation and suppression costs; the loss of water storage, property and timber; and the impact it had on recreation, tourism, wildlife, power lines and fisheries.
It took a much greater personal toll on Colorado residents. It left treasured mountain homes 133 of them in smoking embers. Those who returned to homes spared by the fire found the landscape around them blackened and stripped of life, and the roads leading to them in ruins.
Residents with respiratory problems struggled with the smoke- and ash-filled air, and five firefighters from Oregon died when their van crashed on the way to working on the Hayman.
The fire took out millions of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees, leaving the landscape charred and silent. It destroyed hundreds of miles of roads frequented by hikers, hunters, campers, climbers and sightseers. Later, after the fire was out, floods their path undeterred by vegetation ruined popular campgrounds and hiking trails.
The entire Pike National Forest, more than a million acres, didn't reopen for a month. The Hayman burn area didn't open for recreation until the following April.
But it wasn't a silent place. In the weeks after the smoke cleared, forest workers in three districts, volunteers and scientists descended upon the area, clearing trees, examining burn patterns and reopening roads. The whine of chain saws and the rumble of lumber trucks filled the air. Homeowners, allowed back in, cleaned up piles of burned rubble and began making plans for rebuilding.
Today, there's life in the forest. But there's also an unmistakable feeling that things will never be the same as they were when night fell on June 7, 2002.
Merrill Kaufmann had studied a unique portion of Pike National Forest for more than seven years before the Hayman fire. As emeritus forest ecologist with the federal Rocky Mountain Research Station, he understood the value of a portion of forest that surrounded Cheesman Reservoir.
Kaufmann and his fellow scientists had chosen the Cheesman area for study because of its history: It had never been logged, and it had been fenced off from grazing and protected from fire since the reservoir was built as part of the Denver water system more than a century ago.
The Hayman fire ravaged the area ecologically, but even Kaufmann often found himself thinking outside scientific terms.
"In that long, hard summer after the Hayman fire occurred, I remember waking up every morning with a knot in my stomach," he says. "There was the fear that we could have that kind of fire again, and if it had been just 20 miles to the north, there could have been as many as 10,000 houses in the fire's path."
As it stood, that didn't happen. Maybe that's why most Coloradans remember the Hayman fire only in the way they remember any local news event that commands repeated coverage on TV and in print.
For Victoria Benge, it was different. Now 15 and a sophomore at Woodland Park High School, Benge was 10 when the Hayman fire burned its way into her life.
Benge will never forget one particular day, "the Tuesday after Father's Day." She was attending school in Colorado Springs, and that morning she and her father, John, checked the fire updates, left their house in Woodland Park's Painted Rocks subdivision and drove down Ute Pass.
"When we left, it was a normal day," she says. "We knew the fire was going on, and we did take five photo albums. But later, we found out our neighborhood was evacuated."
Benge and her family drove to Woodland Park High School, where officials led nightly meetings to update area residents on the fire's progress. The meetings took place in the school gym, which was as crowded and noisy as if there were a basketball game going on.
Forest officials stood at a microphone, holding papers with addresses of homes that had burned. Families and neighbors sat on the bleachers, their faces pale and eyes closed as they hoped their neighborhood wouldn't be mentioned.
But the Benges, and other families who lived in Painted Rocks, were taken out of the gym that night.
"They called Painted Rocks, and we went into a little room," Benge says. "It is the tiniest road ever, and we knew all our neighbors. They said, "We are sorry. Your house burned down.' I thought it wasn't true, that they were lying to me. Then, they showed us pictures.
"I was sad, and really mad at Terry Barton, the woman who started the fire. I wanted to know why she did this to me and my family."
The saddest part?
"I lost all my things, but the most important were my Barbie dolls," she says. "I collect them and had 150 of them with all their accessories. They represented my whole life. And my dad collected English cars. He had three in the garage. One of them was going to be my first car when I learned to drive. But we didn't take them and they burned."
She and her parents followed Barton's trial, traveling to Cripple Creek to sit in the courtroom and see her sentenced to prison.
"That was the most valuable lesson for me," Benge says. "That was a closing. I could see she wasn't this horrible person that hated me."
In the years after the fire, the Benges rebuilt their house on the same location, which now is cleared of trees.
"When I was a little girl, I always wanted a bay window," she says. "We built our new house, and I have a bay window. That really made me happy."
Along Colorado Highway 67, lots more new homes, bright and clean, stand out in the scorched forest. And small signs of natural life glimmer on the still-charred landscape alongside Matukat Road, Forest Service Road 211, which most dramatically dissects the burn area.
Late-season pasque flowers nod in the breeze; waterfalls hiss in newly formed channels of decomposed granite, and the first soft, cabbage-like leaves of mullein make a polka-dot pattern on the ground.
But those symbols of springtime and new beginnings hardly make up for the devastation that spreads out for miles in all directions. And except for the pasque, a harbinger of springtime in the Rockies, the signs of life aren't all welcomed.
Take the mullein, for example. A noxious weed that can grow several feet tall, it is considered a pioneer plant one that takes over after a disturbance such as a fire. And it does its job very well.
"Noxious weeds are really good at establishing themselves after a fire," says Brent Botts, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. "Weeds like mullein choke out the natural grasses in the forest. They move in and take over once an area burns."
The mullein, thistle and yellow-toed flax, among other weeds that have taken up residence in the forest since the fire, comprise just one challenge for those trying to help the forest recover. Planting and erosion control projects are still continuing, though the Hayman Restoration Team which Botts headed was disbanded two years after the fire.
When that happened, the forest service assumed responsibility for the restoration. Today, its employees work hand-in-hand with the Colorado State Forest Service and other state agencies, the nonprofit Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), dozens of scientists and hundreds of volunteers, Botts says.
Kaufmann is among those scientists. He has worked with land managers for more than a decade and is involved with the Front Range Fuels Treatment Partnership Roundtable, a group formed in 2004 to address the questions of treatment needs for community fire protection and forest restoration in 10 counties.
That group's work, and research by Kaufmann and other scientists, revolves around lessons learned from Hayman and other catastrophic fires such as Buffalo Creek in 1996, the first eye-opening blaze in the Upper South Platte watershed.
"A couple of adjustments have taken place ecologically on the land since the Hayman fire," Kaufmann says. "And all of it has to do with the recovery of the understory vegetation. It has grown enough by now, and after the first year, was doing all it could to stabilize the soil."
Next, attention turns to the recovery of the forest. "The dilemma presented by fires the magnitude of Hayman," Kaufmann says, "is that they are so outside the historic norm of this kind of system."
A small fire creates an opening that might be 50 or 100 acres. That forest can re-establish itself, though it might take 100 years.
"Real rough estimates after the Hayman show it could be 100 years before even 10 percent of the burn area is reforested," Kaufmann says. "It would take 500 years to fully restore the forest landscape."
And when it's restored, it won't look like it did before the fire. Some portions of the Pike National Forest still hold as many as 1,000 trees per acre, says Matt Matwijec, CUSP forester.
"There should be 60 to 70 trees per acre," he says. "That's what we are working towards."
He notes that stretches of Buffalo Creek don't look much better than Hayman, even though the burn area there is just 2,500 acres and has had a six-year head start on regeneration.
"We have to be realistic," Matwijec says. "There are many acres of land out there that I'm never going to set foot on; that we will never work on. But nature will take its course, and eventually, seeds will blow in from other areas.
"Still, I feel positive when I'm out there, completing a tree-planting project. Some of the trees we planted at Cheesman the first year are now past my knees. That's success."
The smell of smoke
As the seedlings grow taller, memories of the Hayman fire will continue to fade for many. But not for residents who lived through it; they can be taken back to that summer with a whiff of wood smoke.
Jean Rodeck lives in Ridgewood, a community 10 miles north of Woodland Park, just behind the Manitou Experimental Forest.
Rodeck has retired from her position as superintendent of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, but in 2002, she was still working there.
"I remember those days," she says. "I have always prided myself at being independent and self-sufficient. But when the fire came nearer to my house, I stood in my living room and looked at my life and my stuff and just fell apart. I thought, "I can't do this by myself.' But about 10 minutes later, I started moving. I spent about six days moving my things to a storage unit on Ute Pass."
Rodeck took her two cats to a friend's house in Woodland Park, and continued to go to work at the Fossil Beds. At one point, she was told her house had burned.
"A guy from the Forest Service told me the fire had crossed the road and my house was gone," she says. "I was numb. Then, I got news that the report was wrong the fire had crossed the road in a different spot."
Rodeck's house still stands today, and the memory of the Hayman fire stays with her.
"In five years, I haven't burned a stick of wood in either of my two woodstoves," she says. "And I gave away all the wood I had stored around my house.
"It's the smell of wood smoke that gets me. If I ever smell smoke in the air, I go running outside to check my neighbors' chimneys, or see if they are using charcoal."
Today, she still remembers a tiny elderly woman she met at a forest checkpoint during the fire, when the smoke-filled air around Florissant was thick and brown.
"She had lost everything," Rodeck says. "She had no insurance, no savings, no job. And she said, "I started over once. I can do it again.'
"I think that's the spirit in people that the Hayman fire brought out. That's what I remember most."
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