Three giant forest fires raged in Colorado 15 years ago this week. What did we learn from them?
by Allen Best
Fifteen years ago this past Sunday, I went sightseeing, as did Colorado’s governor. We both returned home deeply impressed, maybe even spooked.
From Denver, I had driven to Camp Hale, between Vail and Leadville, then hiked up Resolution Mountain. It stands 11,905 feet, modest by Colorado standards but high enough to get a commanding view of the landscape south and west. My companion, Cathy, remembers being unsettled by the type of clouds we could see from the summit.
Then-Gov. Bill Owens had a higher, broader purview from his seat in an airplane. Two major forest fires had started the afternoon before, and while we were on the mountain and the governor was presumably in the air, yet a third major fire started.
Returning to Denver, Owens told reporters: “It looks like all of Colorado is burning today.” He took crap for that observation. Colorado was not all on fire! It will keep tourists at home! But if not literally true, all of Colorado figuratively was on fire.
It had been a dry winter, and April bellowed hot winds. The three fires that the governor saw that day had started almost simultaneously. On June 8, a Saturday, a fire from an underground coal seam underlying the western part of Glenwood Springs caused dried vegetation on the ground to catch fire. It was a hot and windy day, and the flames roared and then leaped across railroad tracks, the Colorado River, and Interstate 70. It eventually burned 12,200 acres but, more importantly, raced through a city.
That same day, in central Colorado, a Forest Service employee—perhaps ironically a fire prevention technician—burned letters in a campground of what she said was a romance gone sour. She left and the flames spread, becoming the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire. One woman died of an asthma attack provoked by the smoke, and five firefighters died in a car wreck en route to Colorado to help fight the flames. As The Denver Post’s John Ingold noted in 2012, Barton’s story was widely disbelieved. She served five years in prison.
In southwest Colorado yet a third fire, called Missionary Ridge, north of Durango, began on June 9, the day I climbed the mountain. That fire eventually burned 70,500 acres. No cause of ignition was ever determined.
Denver that month was often smoky. I remember the sinister light that left streets looking scenes from a sci-fi movie about some future, dystopian civilization. Sunshine filtered through smoke has a disturbing orange tint, kind of like our current president’s dyed hair. It leaves you vaguely out of sorts, kind of like that first blush of sickness, say the onslaught of flu, when you don’t feel quite right but just can’t explain it. That’s what June 2002 felt like as the Hayman and other fires raged.
Drought was the major story. Dendrochronologist, or tree-ring, experts, concluded that it had been the driest runoff in 150 to 300 years, depending upon location. The Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon had a peak that was almost inconspicuous. Downstream farther, Lake Powell plummeted, leaving a giant bathtub ring. Flows into the reservoir were 25 percent of the long-term average and the lowest since the dam had been completed in 1963.
But the fires also renewed the conversations about our rights and our responsibilities when living in a fire-prone landscape. Arguably, Glenwood Springs could have done very little or nothing to have insulated itself from the fire. But Missionary Ridge and Hayman both resulted in loss of homes built in what is called the wildland-urban interface. You know: the cabin sitting out in the forest, away from the aggravations of town or city life. But ponderosa pine forests burn every few decades.
The late Ed Quillen, writing in The Denver Post, captured at least a portion of the discussion by calling this the stupid zone.
Did we learn from 2002? Yes, and perhaps no. In the decade that followed, there were other major fires, particularly along the Front Range. Most significant were two giant fires in another hot, dry year decade later, in the hot, dry year of 2012, we had giant forest fires at Colorado Springs and west of Fort Collins. Hundreds and hundreds more homes burned.
The larger story is more nuanced. As humans we are very, very forgetful. Six years after a big fire, maybe sooner, the memory of the devastation recedes. People decide it’s OK to build houses in places where fire occurred because — well, hey, it’s pretty and it’s away from the city. (If I had the money, I might be tempted to live in such places myself).
But in Summit County, Vail and Steamboat Springs, there was additional reminder. The drought further weakened aging forest of lodgepole pine, making them more vulnerable to an epidemic of bark beetles that spread a fungus that kills the trees. These places always were vulnerable to forest fires, if infrequent. But whole hillsides of rust-colored needles made the risk that much more susceptible.
Vail modified building codes to slowly phase out the shake-wood shingles that made houses more vulnerable. The town also began thinning forests along its periphery, creating something of a moat. Breckenridge shifted its regulations. Instead of penalizing people who removed trees from their property, aggressive efforts were launched to reward creation of defensible space, to lower the risk of fire spreading to homes.
Other work has been done by water agencies in cooperation with federal and state land agencies. Denver Water, for example, pledged $16.5 million, a figure matched by the U.S. Forest Service, for thinning of forests in its collection areas. The city’s Cheesman Reservoir was heavily clogged by sediment resulting from the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and then again the Hayman Fire. In February 2017, the city renewed its $16.5 million commitment to the program, called From Forests to Faucets. Work—now including the Colorado Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service—will include projects in both Summit and Grand counties. Roughly 50 percent of Denver Water’s 1.4 million customers get supplied by water diverted from these two counties. Other water agencies, such as Aurora, have similar programs in forested areas from which they draw water.
In May, Breckenridge and the Forest Service announced a memorandum of understanding regarding “treatment” of forested lands in the area along the Blue River where the town draws its water.
Unlike the frequent fires of lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests, fire only rarely visited high-elevation spruce-fir forests rarely in centuries past. The last giant fire in the Fraser Valley, for example, occurred about the time that British emigrants were trying to establish a colony at Jamestown, in the early 1600s.
How might warming temperatures change the fire regimes? It’s clear enough that 2002 and 2012 should be viewed as harbingers of what is likely to come. But that’s another story, and I welcome you to see what experts had to say on the subject at a workshop held during March in Aurora.