Recovery from Hayman fire continues 20 years later, with lessons learned being applied | Subscriber-Only Content

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Twenty years can feel like ancient history.

To many affected by the Hayman fire, it seems like yesterday.

“It’s still pretty vivid for most of the people who lived here,” said Steven Brown, a bank loan officer by profession. Since 2005, he’s also worn the hat of volunteer fire chief for the Mountain Communities Fire Department in the Douglas County subdivision of Westcreek, which lost 100 structures.

A U.S. Forest Service technician checking for illegal campfires near Lake George during a burn ban is said to have put a match to a letter involving her estranged husband on the afternoon of June 8, 2002, sparking what would reign for 18 years as Colorado’s largest wildfire in modern times.

Before being declared controlled nearly six weeks later, the Hayman fire charred 137,760 acres, or 215 square miles, according to the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control.






Firefighters with the Cherryvale Fire Department put out hot spots in the Hayman fire north of Florissant on June 19, 2002. 




Two decades later, desolate scenes remain over parts of the vast burn scar, where tall, blackened trunks denuded of branches dot the hillsides.







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Twenty years after the Hayman Fire burned 137,760 acres, or 215 square miles, burn scars can be seen spanning for miles off of Rule Creek Trail near Woodland Park.




Camille Stevens-Rumann, assistant professor in the Forest Rangeland Stewardship Department at Colorado State University, said she was walking toward Cheesman Lake near Deckers a few weeks ago.

“There’s not a single tree seedling for 50,000 acres that’s naturally there,” said Stevens-Rumann, who’s also assistant director for the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute.

“That’s not really what we want, but small pockets of that wouldn’t be bad if we’re trying to stop the progression of some subsequent fire.”

In other places, ash and burnt debris have been washed away, lifting the earth’s moonscape appearance and allowing green ground cover and new seedlings to reappear.

Wildlife seems to have overcome destroyed habitats and now forage for food and water, and disturbed creeks and streams are flush with fish, insects and vegetation.

But problems continue.







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Carol Ekarius stands next to a reclamation project where trees were laid in a stream to prevent erosion on June 2, 2022.




For example, an abundance of thick, eroding sediment clogs culverts and other channels where water flows, threatening drinking supplies and reducing access to roads and trails, said U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Brian Banks.

He manages the South Platte Ranger District, part of the Pike-San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands. One-third of his district has been impacted by high-intensity fires like the Hayman.

Under a new agreement with Denver Water, Banks’ ranger district is receiving additional funding to help mitigate fuels to preserve the watershed, he said, as 80% of metro Denver’s drinking water comes from the 460,000-acre ranger district that spans Jefferson, Douglas, Teller, Park and Clear Creek counties.

Workers have started new improvements on channels, roads and trails.







South Platte District Ranger Brian Banks

U.S.  Forest Service District Ranger Brian Banks poses with mascot Smokey Bear. Banks manages the South Platte Ranger District, part of the Pike-San Isabel National Forests & Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands. One-third of the district has been impacted by high-intensity fires like the Hayman.




“It’s a constant struggle,” Banks said. “As soon as you remove vegetation, it’s like trying to hold back marbles. Our soil is so erosive, because it’s decomposed granite.”

Water quality is the biggest concern at this point, said Stevens-Rumann, a tree specialist.

“Trees purify water and reduce change in the infiltration rate, which changes how that water ends up in rivers and streams and in our water sources,” she said. “Without them, that kind of changes the water-flow dynamic, potentially for centuries.”

Recent studies have shown the quality of water originating from the Hayman burn region is substandard to what it was before the fire, she added.

“We often think that these issues are short-term,” Stevens-Rumann said. “You have these big flooding events or erosion, and you need to make sure you have water infrastructure to handle that.

“But that should dissipate,” she said. “If the water quality is still bad, that matters a lot for everyone on the Front Range.”

Fire that changed everything

Lessons learned from the Hayman fire based on lived experiences, trial-and-error and a large bank of case studies are guiding continuing recovery. 

“Day-to-day management is still impacted by the Hayman; 20 years later, we still deal with it,” Banks said. 







Fire Chief Steven Brown

Volunteer Fire Chief Steven Brown, who oversees the Mountain Communities Fire Department headquartered in Westcreek, points out the area of his district at the main fire station.




It was so dry in the early summer of ’02 that the pine needles were a foot deep, said Brown, who had just joined the Mountain Communities volunteer squad as a finance specialist when the fire broke out.

Years of drought conditions, hot temperatures and gusty winds created a hell-bent inferno that consumed 60,000 acres after just one day in the dense Pike National Forest and surrounding private lands.

The fire extended into portions of Park, Teller, Douglas and Jefferson counties, and led to six deaths. Five were Oregon firefighters involved in a traffic crash en route to Colorado.

In addition to the 133 homes lost, at a cost of $42 million, according to post-disaster reports, the popular Horse Creek Café and Saloon near Deckers and 466 outbuildings, such as barns and bunkhouses, burned.







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Steve Segin, a U.S. Forest Service fire information officer, looks at some burned vehicles north of Lake George on June 23, 2002, that were destroyed by the Hayman fire.




“That fire changed everything — some for the good, some for the bad,” Brown said last week, as he removed signs advertising an annual pancake breakfast that netted $12,000 for the department’s three stations.

“Since the Hayman, it’s been a good fundraiser,” he said with a wry smile.

It’s just one of the ironies of the Hayman fire, the most obvious being that the woman convicted of arson was a forestry worker.

While many people initially thought Hayman was an anomaly, the historic fire became an unfortunate foreshadowing of what was to come for Colorado and other Western states, said industry expert Carol Ekarius, who in 1998 became the first employee of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.







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Twenty years after the Hayman Fire burned 137,760 acres, or 215 square miles, burn scars can be seen spanning for miles off of Rule Creek Trail near Woodland Park.




The nonprofit organization, headquartered in Lake George in Park County, formed in the aftermath of the mid-1990s’ Buffalo Creek fire, to focus on improving forest health and decreasing wildfire potential.

Ekarius, a Teller County resident, recently retired a few years ago as executive director but is frequently called on as a wildfire consultant.

At 11,700 acres, Buffalo Creek in 1996 was a “game changer,” Banks said. Before then, 1,000 acres was considered a large wildfire.

“The magnitude of Buffalo Creek was unheard of at the time on the Front Range,” he said.

“We collectively took a step back and said, ‘Whoa.’ It spurred us to action to preventive measures, as we saw not only the effects of the fire, but the post-fire erosion and flooding that were more damaging than the fire itself.”

Most notable about the Hayman, Banks said, is that it was Colorado’s first fire that leapt to the next level, topping 100,000 acres. It’s now fallen to fourth-largest statewide. Three giants surpassed it in 2020: Cameron Peak (now the largest at 208,913 acres), followed by East Troublesome and Pine Gulch.

The Hayman fire led to systemic changes in fire prevention, firefighting tactics, forest management and recovery procedures that professionals say are used today.

“We’re just now coming to terms that we live in a fire-adapted ecosystem,” Ekarius said.







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Twenty years after the Hayman Fire, aspen trees have started to fill in parts of the burn scar where large pine trees used to stand. Although the regrowth is good, the aspens are not yet providing enough protection to prevent snow from blowing away in the winter and melting too quickly in the summer, ultimately effecting the areas watershed. 




The hard-learned lessons have been evolving for more than a century, though.

The Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres and destroyed merchantable timber to build 800,000 homes, prompted the U.S. Forest Service to adopt a policy to put out all forest fires. 

“What we know now is that fire was a mechanism by which the forest maintained itself,” Ekarius said. “And we interrupted that with well-intentioned consequences.”

By the late 1990s, forests around the nation had not been thinned enough, and grazing had declined. Dense trees and dry underbrush began fueling megafires that experts predict will continue.

“This kind of scale of fire is not going away,” Ekarius said.

Forest land provides food, water and shelter for wildlife, and timber, water and recreation for humans — and fire adversely affects all elements.

To stop erosion and sediment from infiltrating the water supply, forestry employees are stabilizing the soil along banks and hillsides before it ends up in a reservoir, Banks said, using measures such as planting willows to secure stream banks.







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Large headcuts, areas of soil erosion, are often created after wildfires. To prevent the erosion from continuing and sediment from infiltrating the water supply, logs and dirt are placed into the swath nature carved. 




Recreation also has changed, with some campsites decommissioned, four-wheeling trails blocked, continuing campfire restrictions and designated target-shooting sites.

About three-quarters of wildfires are human-caused, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The top three culprits, Brown said, are abandoned campfires, shooting guns near tall grasses, and trees touching power lines.







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A hiker makes his way through the scars from the 2002 Hayman fire as he follows the Goose Creek Trail on May 2, 2020 in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area about 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs. Aspen and ponderosa pine trees are filling in the landscape 18 years after Colorado’s largest wildfire in history burned more than 138,114 acres. The forest fire started June 8, 2020.




The U.S. Forest Service, with the help of volunteers, has planted more than 2 million trees in the Hayman burn region, Banks said.

In leading a private tour of a portion of the burn scar in Douglas and Teller counties, Ekarius points out where thousands of volunteers who have assisted her organization over the years seeded and mulched in a pattern that encourages water seepage instead of runoff.

Replanting in the Hayman boundaries to date has been “a drop in the bucket,” she said.

“We need to ramp up reforestation; right now, Colorado forests are net emitters of carbon, and they should be net sequesters,” Ekarius said.

Not enough young trees, too many scorched dead and diseased trees that still emit carbon, and an imbalance of older trees that don’t absorb their fair share of carbon have caused the problem, she said.

Reseeding has become more selective, Banks said, to reduce noxious weeds, which compete with native species, and be more strategic in promulgating future generations of trees.

“We plant every year,” he said, “but some of these areas are not regenerating the way we’ve seen them in the past. We don’t know if it has to do with climate change or the intensity of the fire.”

The Hayman fire was deemed high-intensity because of the temperatures reached and how it burned deep into the soil. 

Now, new trees in the burn scar vary from a few feet tall for evergreens and 10 to 12 feet tall for aspens.







Hayman Fire burnscar regrowth01.JPG

Twenty years after the Hayman Fire, aspen trees have started to fill in parts of the burn scar where large pine trees used to stand. Although the regrowth is good, the aspens are not yet providing enough protection to prevent snow from blowing away in the winter and melting too quickly in the summer, ultimately effecting the areas watershed.




Ekarius predicts it will take up to another 100 years for the forest to look more normal again.

Restoration funding also has not been as good as before because of the increased number of wildfires, she noted.

For example, $41 million was spent on fire recovery for the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 18,247 acres in El Paso County in 2012, she said. In comparison, the Hayman fire received $40 million for restoration in 2002 dollars, for nearly 138,000 acres.

However, state lawmakers approved 11 bills in this year’s legislative session to benefit wildfire management, increase insurance coverage for wildfire losses, stockpile resources to respond to natural disasters, improve forest health, support firefighting, and fund mitigation work.

“We can’t exclude fire from these ecosystems,” Banks said. “The restoration we’re doing today is geared around the idea we’re going to return fire back into that ecosystem in a healthy way that’s going to provide benefits.”

In light of what’s shaping up to be a concerning volatile summer fire season, officials are pleading with property owners to mitigate their land.

“I tell people, ‘Help yourself protect your property,’” said Brown, the fire chief. “We will do everything we can to save structures, but we all need to work together.”

Property owners should trim or remove trees near homes and other structures, keep undergrowth short, rake up pine needles and leaves, and be on the ready, in case they need to evacuate quickly, officials said.

Reducing fuels also must be done across local, state and federal boundaries, Banks said.

“It can’t be patchy treatment; we have to have connected, cohesive treatment to truly make a difference in fire behavior,” he said.

Such collaboration has formed, Banks said, noting pandemic stimulus money allocated for fuels-reduction programs, but the work needs to occur on “a larger scale and faster pace.”

“We’re in a race against time, to try to get this done before the next fire breaks out,” he said. “There’s a lot on the line, and we need all hands on deck.”

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