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On a parched spring morning amid gusting wind, electronic signs on the roads around Deckers blink a warning of wildfire danger. But as Carol Ekarius directs a vehicle up narrow Matukat Road in this expanse of the Pike National Forest, the vista suddenly opens like a portal to the future.
Welcome to the now 20-year-old burn area of the Hayman wildfire, a 138,000-acre inferno that long stood as Colorado’s largest and prompted then-Gov. Bill Owens’ hyperbolic observation (figurative, he would later insist) that, “It looks as if all of Colorado is burning today.”
The rhetoric may have been overheated, but there was no denying the arson-sparked fire’s impact. It started June 8, 2002, on the heels of drought that dried plentiful fuel, and torched a Colorado forest with unprecedented ferocity. The wind-whipped flames claimed 64,000 acres on the first day as the fire tore across Douglas, Jefferson, Park and Teller counties and forced evacuation of more than 5,000 residents. Containment efforts took nearly a month.
Two decades later, the view that once overlooked dense forest now features scattered stands of surviving trees amid sparse protrusions of skeletal trunks — some fallen, some still standing — punctuated by patches of mostly ponderosa pine planted in the years following the fire. Low grass and shrubs, as well as occasional streaks of irrepressible aspen, have taken hold in rocky soil still peppered with charcoal pebbles, a patchwork landscape that bends toward Cheesman Reservoir below.
Ekarius, the former executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), a nonprofit charged with protecting the area’s watershed, remembers looking out her office window near Lake George and seeing the mushroom cloud of smoke marking the fire’s initial explosion.
Now she can look across the reshaped ecosystem and catch a glimpse of what nature holds in store elsewhere in Colorado and the West, as the frequency and scope of wildfires rise: A recovery that holds not so much the promise of a forest for future generations, but a challenge to adapt. From the people who stayed, to the shifting forest ecology, to the regional water supply, Hayman has proven not only a cautionary tale but also a valuable laboratory.
“It was the precursor of our future then,” Ekarius said. “And it really is the precursor of our future today. Fire is here. It’s not going away. And it is being exacerbated by climate change. Twenty years ago, I don’t think people were talking so much about climate change and fire. But in the last decade, a lot of the researchers and folks with the Forest Service have been making that connection.”
The biggest — but not by today’s measure
For most Coloradans at the time, Hayman represented the first wildfire of monstrous proportions. It would be 18 years before another fire exceeded its scope, but in 2020 three surpassed its acreage: Pine Gulch at 139,000 acres, East Troublesome at nearly 194,000 acres and the Cameron Peak wildfire at nearly 209,000 acres.
Hayman had been a benchmark. Suddenly, as drought and climate change entered the conversation, it became something else — a harbinger of fires to come.
“In retrospect, we can see that (Hayman) showed some of those first signs of how climate change was changing fires,” said Camille Stevens-Rumann, assistant professor at Colorado State University and assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. “That wasn’t really part of the narrative, and I don’t think we were quite linking it. We were in a really dry year. It was droughty. It was hot. So it’s like the weather discussion was driving that year’s bad fires.”
But the recovery — or really, the lack of recovery — of the forest has brought the effects of climate change into sharper focus, she added. The vast majority of the trees that are growing back are those that have been planted, as conditions for natural regeneration have diminished.
In some respects, and in some areas where it burned with low to moderate severity, the Hayman fire performed beneficial functions — like helping to reduce forest density produced by a century of fire suppression policy and other land use activities.
But the devastation surrounding Cheesman Reservoir illustrates the opposite extreme, forest destruction on an unprecedented scale, notes Paula Fornwalt, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins.
“There’s no way around that,” she said. “In those areas, the forest is gone. It used to really break my heart because I knew that forest from before the fire. Just to see it change was devastating. Maybe I’ve just become used to it now, 20 years later. I don’t get that visceral reaction when I see those large, high-severity patches, but it’s definitely not the way an ecosystem is supposed to operate.”
The Hayman fire blew up during an inflection point for assumptions about post-fire reforestation.
Before 2000, conventional wisdom pointed toward gradual regeneration: Seeds would drop, germinate and slowly grow into a forest again. But with an ongoing understanding of climate change and its impacts on Colorado’s mountain ecosystems, those assumptions have been re-examined.
“Hayman is one of the many examples we have from the western U.S. of those fires from around 2000 that, really, (the forest) is not coming back,” Stevens-Rumann said. “But it’s really important to acknowledge that it’s not a lost landscape. There’s still value to grassland or shrubland. And it’s up to us to make sure that that’s still a healthy ecosystem — even if we can’t reforest every part of it.”
The Coalition for the Upper South Platte helped install a variety of features designed to flatten water flow in drainages and reduce debris and erosion near Deckers. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The ponderosa pine problem
Researchers often describe the Hayman fire as unfolding in two distinct narratives: one involving areas that burned as expected; but also another, unprecedented portion fueled by winds that burned even hotter and killed acres and acres of trees.
Fornwalt and Marin Chambers, a research associate and forest ecologist with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, studied the fire’s impacts together when Chambers was pursuing her master’s degree.
Chambers notes that when she walks these areas, especially the stretches where no trees survived, she sees a landscape in transition to grassland or forbland — at least for the time being.
“And while we may see forest again in the future,” she added, “my research has illustrated that we’re seeing a delay in reporting natural reforestation, and that the majority that’s occurring naturally is around surviving trees. All of the forest types that we have in Colorado have really different fire ecologies and recovery following fire. Each one has their own unique story.”
But in the Hayman fire, ponderosa pine played a particularly significant role. While the trees tolerate ground fire fairly well, crown fires consumed yawning expanses of the area’s dominant species and ensured that they’d be unlikely to return naturally.
Some types of trees constantly produce and drop seeds. But large-scale distributions of ponderosa pine seeds happen sometimes several years apart in Colorado. So when the fire killed those trees, and the seeds with them, regeneration suffered a huge setback.
Ponderosa pine didn’t evolve to withstand a fire of the Hayman’s intensity; it has adapted to survive “replacing fires” of low to moderate severity. But when portions of Hayman blew up into a windblown, high-severity crown fire, the trees faced an existential crisis.
“It doesn’t really have a regeneration mechanism that enables it to prosper, to establish readily after large standard replacing fires,” Fornwalt said. “And so that’s why we’re seeing this vegetation type conversion from a ponderosa pine dominated forests to shrublands and to areas dominated by herbaceous species and forbs.”
Additionally, ponderosa pine seeds are relatively large, and don’t disperse far from the parent tree — unlike other species that produce small seeds that routinely hitch a ride on wind or water. And because of their size and nutritional content, the seeds become food for birds, small mammals and insects once they hit the ground.
Consequently, what regrowth has occurred tends to be in the immediate vicinity of trees that survived the fire more or less intact. And even if seeds do manage to find their way to the vast open spaces, climate change kicks in. Recent evidence has shown that these areas are experiencing different climatic conditions than they were previously; it’s now simply too hot and dry for ponderosa pines to re-establish and thrive on their own.
“The only way it can regenerate after fire is from seeds from live trees,” Fornwalt said. “When you remove the live trees, you’re put in a pickle.”
Communities in flux
While the fire took a toll on the forest, there was plenty of damage to communities as well. The flames claimed 600 structures, including 133 residences that totaled more than $42 million in housing losses.
For some who stayed to reclaim their homes, the human landscape shifted as well.
On June 8, 2002, the day the Hayman fire started, Jeff Laurell put the finishing touches on a space he and his wife had leased in Woodland Park to open up as a judo and jujitsu school the following week. Then he drove home to Turkey Rock Ranch Estates, an older subdivision bordering the national forest that had been carved into parcels of around an acre or less.
Jeff and his wife, Amy, had lived there for 13 years and found it an idyllic spot. The active, athletic couple loved rock climbing and the well-known crag for which the subdivision is named loomed practically in their backyard. As he headed home, he noticed the sky glowing ahead of him.
“And I looked to the west coming up north on Colorado 67 and said, ‘Holy crap,” recalled Jeff, now 61. “That glare was coming right towards us.”
He rushed into his house to see Amy already packing so they could make a hasty retreat. Soon they joined their neighbors in assembling at the local high school for periodic updates on which houses didn’t survive the flames. He was told his place had burned, but when he called his home phone, the answering machine picked up, inspiring what turned out to be false hope.
“To me, one of the most stressful things was the uncertainty of not knowing where you go with something like this,” he said. “What do you do? How do you proceed? How do you fix your life back up and move forward?”
Home reclamation moved far more quickly than the forest. In their motel room, Laurell grabbed a scratch pad and sketched the footprint of their former house. He added some bedrooms and handed the pad to Amy to add her ideas. Back and forth they passed the scratch pad, for days. Jeff added a small deck. Amy enlarged it. By the time their loan paperwork went through, it was January and the Laurells had graduated from scratch pad to blueprints.
An excavator showed up in February. By October, they were moving in.
New vistas, new beauty
Twenty years later, saplings have sprung up — conifer, spruce and some ponderosa pine. Aspen has returned in thick pockets. Now the couple’s two grandsons, Jeff hopes, will eventually see a more fully rejuvenated landscape.
“It’ll never be fully regrown in our lifetime,” he said, “but on the other hand, it’s very encouraging that maybe our grandkids will enjoy a full forest like it was before. Or pretty close. Another bright side is you’re able to see long distances to the mountains and ridges that you weren’t able to see before.
“And that has kind of opened up its own beauty.”
The new landscape of the burn area may have changed some recreational habits — ATVs seemed to multiply tenfold, Jeff says — but the biggest shift in the community reflected the statewide population growth. Jeff and Amy scratched their heads at the influx of new residents, even when the area was still covered in ash. One explanation, he recalled, was that real estate agents were convincing everyone that property in the area was a great bargain.
“And people were buying into it,” he said. “At least the last 15-20 years people have been trying to buy up every piece of property they could find here and build a home on it.”
When the Hayman fire struck, Laurie Glauth — who runs a health food store in Woodland Park and lives close to the burn area, not far from the Laurells — was still learning the ropes of the cattle industry. She’d recently inherited the 800-acre Pinehurst Ranch from pioneer Zelma Worden, who had extracted a promise that Glauth keep the land in agriculture.
With 650 acres burned, Glauth found herself among the private landowners most affected by the wildfire. But she has stayed, persevered — and, like Jeff Laurell, watched as newcomers arrived. It hasn’t always been a comfortable reset.
“It’s not just a fire and recovery type of thing so much as it’s so many people are coming in,” Glauth said. “And they haven’t lived through a lot of it, and they don’t seem to have a lot of respect for private property. They don’t have respect for wildlife. They don’t have respect for Mother Nature.”
She echoes growing concern with target shooting at an area off Colorado 67 north of Woodland Park — too close to her ranch for comfort. She said she’s had livestock shot and killed, feeders riddled with holes, fences hung with targets for shooting practice. Shooting also has sparked fires. And, in 2015, a 60-year-old camper was killed at the Rainbow Falls Campground by what authorities believed to be a stray bullet.
“There’s nothing wrong with shooting a gun,” Glauth said, “but it’s about shooting it responsibly. And it’s also about safety.”
Her small cattle operation was doing well until COVID hit, and the wait time to process her beef became prohibitive. So she has downsized, but the business remains a work in progress. She still runs the health food store. But a lot has changed since the fire.
“The problem is we’ve had a turnover of people and a growth spurt, where they don’t have a clue about the fire 20 years ago,” Glauth said. “And it’s a different community. And their expectations are different. If we’re dry and there’s a fire ban, so many people will burn anyway.
“So I guess what I see is that the destruction has built on itself,” she added. “First, you had the fire. And now you have man coming in.”
Fire and water
Along the eastern edge of the Hayman burn area, Ekarius descends a steep embankment to the riparian area along Trail Creek, which now meanders past thick willows planted to help stabilize the channel.
In the aftermath of the fire, this was just so much scorched earth. Now the surviving trees scattered uphill overlook a 3-mile oasis of plant life built with $4 million and thousands of volunteers over three years.
“If you had come out here in the first years we were doing this project there was like — nothing,” Ekarius said. “It was as bare a dirt as that granite up on the side of that slope.”
Even the creek was barren. Wildlife workers electrofished this stretch of the stream and found nothing. But as the reclamation effort started low in the drainage and worked its way up the watershed behind heavy equipment and a cadre of volunteers, fish followed their progress.
Catchment areas isolated sediment. Willows and other plant life stabilized the surrounding landscape. This work, like hundreds of other projects in the Hayman burn area, addresses the fire’s elemental opposite — water.
The Upper South Platte watershed partially scorched by Hayman provides 80% of Denver’s water supply and 90% of Aurora’s. And while there were some immediate impacts on water quality from the fire — elevated levels of manganese, metals and nutrients — those changes in the raw water supply could be treated at the purification plants.
The biggest challenges, once the fire had been contained, came from what it left behind: debris and loose soil ripe for erosion and sedimentation. The Coalition for the Upper South Platte installed hundreds of debris basins in drainages – basically, reinforced holes that flatten the drainage to allow water to run more slowly across the surface while dropping sediment into the depressions.
Although Hayman’s scope and intensity created a new benchmark for Colorado wildfires in 2002, some of its lessons often are linked with the nearby 1996 Buffalo Creek fire — relatively small at 11,700 acres — and the drenching rains that followed both. Flooding after the Buffalo Creek fire unleashed a million cubic yards of sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir, the small but critical reservoir that serves as a gateway for Denver-area water.
To put that in perspective: Sediment that normally would have accrued over 40 years came crashing down in one cataclysmic event.
Together, Buffalo Creek and Hayman provided a glimpse at the cost of reactive forest management. Denver Water spent $27.7 million on water treatment and sediment and debris removal following the two fires.
Engineers determined that managing the upstream watershed — revegetating and restoring streams, for instance — was a far more cost-effective way to deal with the sediment. Even reducing the sediment flow by as little as 5% provides a worthwhile return on investment, notes Christina Burri, a watershed scientist for Denver Water.
In 2010, Denver Water and the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service began a partnership to pursue proactive forest management called Forests to Faucets. In 2017, the program expanded to include the Colorado State Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service and committed $33 million to forest management.
“It’s definitely become more apparent that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Burri said. “You can’t focus all your resources on just post-fire recovery immediately following the fire. It’s got to be a really holistic approach — and you need partners to do that.
“Recovery is tough. We can’t just can’t just walk away from it and think that it’s going to recover on its own, how it used to look before the fire. We haven’t seen that with Hayman.”
For more than two decades since the forest ignited, the Hayman burn area has served as a laboratory for research, even amid ongoing reclamation efforts. Its sheer size, plus its status as one of Colorado’s first monster wildfires, created opportunities to advance the science.
In 2012, recognizing Hayman’s 10-year anniversary, Fornwalt helped organize the Hayman Fire Science Symposium, where more than 100 researchers and agency managers and others gathered in Denver — and the next day at the Hayman burn site — to review what they’d learned.
Runoff and erosion were the key topics. On field trip day, attendees also viewed the riparian restoration that the Coalition for the Upper South Platte was doing along Trail Creek.
But while there have been lessons learned, many questions remain. Should efforts be made to reforest areas that have begun to transition to different types of vegetation?
“In some ways, I wouldn’t want it to return to what it was,” Fornwalt said, “because that wasn’t necessarily a healthy ecosystem either, due to the land management — the fire suppression, logging and grazing. But it’s going to be an uphill battle for it to return to something that resembles the historical condition of the relatively open forest with big old ponderosa pines.”
Meanwhile, the fires continue — ever expanding in size and leaping over the urban-wildland interface as the window of wildfire “season” now never closes. But while Hayman recedes on the state’s all-time list, it’s still considered a major turning point in the way Colorado regards wildfire.
“It was the first of the big fires, and it’s not the largest anymore, but it was the eye-opener,” Fornwalt said. “And so I think it’s going to continue to be the poster child for the new norm. It will not be forgotten.”
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members of The Sun. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.