When will Colorado be hit by another devastating wildfire? No one knows for sure—but we do know that the probability is high due to our naturally dry climate, a summer weather forecast of potential drought conditions, and the tinderbox effects of ubiquitous pine beetle kill. Here's what to expect—and how to make sure you're ready for the heat.
The Biggest Blaze
A look back at 2002's Hayman Fire.
One unfortunate heartbreak led to the largest fire in Colorado history. On June 8, 2002, former U.S. Forest Service ranger Terry Barton burned a letter from her estranged husband in a fire pit west of Colorado Springs near Lake George. Distracted by her emotional duress, she claimed, Barton failed to properly extinguish it, and drought and high winds pushed the ashy remnants into flames that reached beyond her control. The ensuing Hayman Fire wasn't fully doused until July 18, nearly 140,000 acres later. Barton served six years in prison for starting the fire, which burned 132 homes and 466 outbuildings, prompted more than 8,000 evacuations, and cost almost $240 million.
We asked Randy Hickenbottom, the district ranger for the South Platte Ranger District who arrived on the scene a day after Hayman started, for his take on a fire of this magnitude.
5280 Can you paint us a picture of the scene?
Randy Hickenbottom I hadn't ever seen anything that darkened the sky like that. It looked stormlike even though there was no storm in the forecast. There were elements of red, orange, and yellow with black and gray—very eerie looking. Fires that big can look like a huge wall of flames—two or three hundred feet high—and sound like a train, an enormously loud pulsing, chugging sound that's just weird. It's so intense that your nasal passages, your sense of smell, shut down, but there's still an acrid odor that stings. Your handkerchief can be your best friend.
5280 Were you initially nervous about the fire's scope?
RH That second day it burned 19 miles, and the weather report called for similar conditions on the third day. Another 19 miles would have put it approximately in downtown Evergreen—where I lived at the time. So I called my wife and told her to think about what she might take with her. Fortunately, it did not continue like we predicted. But after the third or fourth day, we knew we were dealing with something unprecedented in Colorado history. We had to drive two hours from one end of it to the other.
5280 What goes through your mind when you're that close to something so volatile?
RH When you've gone from initial attack to something that's escaped, the situation changes. You're no longer trying to solely suppress the fire. The focus becomes how you're going to get people out of harm's way, and the complexity changes dramatically. In a fire that's moved through thousands of acres, you're looking at multiple jurisdictions, political identities, and ranger districts. You transition from worrying about the fire to worrying about people's safety. You're wondering how much lead-time you need to provide, what's the next trigger point for evacuation? The homes can be rebuilt; people dying—they can't be rebuilt.