Remember the Hayman!

Fire Restrictions Eased; Disaster Concerns Still Escalating

Rick Langenberg

Teller County and the Pikes Peak region has gotten a temporary reprieve from Mother Nature, in the form of long-awaited moisture.

But officials are urging residents not to get too comfortable and still prepare for a pending evacuation this summer and observe proper safety regulations. And when in doubt, remember the Hayman, a horrific wildfire event that occurred 20 years ago this week and changed the face of the region and emerged as a clear symbol of the wildfire dangers confronting Colorado.

The county commissioners, in following advice from emergency response experts and area fire department officials, have agreed to rescind the current Stage 2 restriction, and move the region back to Stage 1 regulations.

Under Stage 1 restrictions, outdoor grills are permitted along with outdoor smoking. Stage 1 is the more traditional level of restrictions :Teller residents have faced in recent years. It still prohibits open campfires, fireworks and many burning activities.

In mid-May, Teller was put on a Stage 2 alert, one step short of basically shutting the region down for recreational use.  The timing  couldn’t have been better for the Stage 2 warning, as several hours after the tougher restrictions were implemented, southern Teller got hit with the High Park fire.  The blaze, the most significant wildfire to strike the region this year scorched more than 1,500 acres. A disaster designation was declared.

The fight against High Park involved hefty crews of local, state and federal teams  The fire was contained, following a week and half battle that was declared as a big success by local leaders. Their fight was aided by Mother Nature, as the area received a huge snow storm that delivered close to 30 inches in part of  Teller County.

In the last week, more traditional spring moisture patterns have returned, allowing the area to retreat to a Stage 1 level of restrictions.

But this retreat comes with stern cautionary words. Remain vigilant and comply with fire safety guidelines.

Memories of the Hayman Fire Linger

The current dry conditions rival those that persisted 20 years ago, when Teller County got struck with the Hayman fire, which ignited on June 8, 2002.  It was started by a former forest service worker, and encompassed nearly 150,000 acres and led to the evacuation of more than 5,000 residents in a score of counties, including Teller. At the time, it became the biggest wildfire in Colorado’s history.

It scorched 68,000 acres in the first day, with a blaze that raged across Park, Teller, Jefferson and Douglas counties.

For a solid month, the area was bombarded by  media representatives across the country, as the Hayman became a symbol of problems associated with a lingering drought in the West and a dense forest and a new call for better fire mitigation in the high country. The issue of climate change even came into play.

The Hayman became a wake-up call for Teller County.  As for a solid five-year period, Teller escaped relatively unscathed, as a number of fires occurred nearby but never really struck our area.

This week, memories still linger, especially among those who  lost their properties. The Hayman fire, coupled with the Waldo Canyon blaze of 2012, have upped concerns over fire safety.

The day the fire started, the blaze at an amazing level from Lake George to Hwy. 67 north of Woodland Park. On a personal level, I spotted the Hayman during a dinner outing at Shining Mountain and thought it was a mere campfire that got out of hand.

That theory was completely shattered the following day, as it spread to more than 50,000 acres.

Nightly meetings were held  at the Woodland Park High School, the official evacuation center, to update neighborhoods on who lost their homes. But at times, Woodland Park was even threatened.

The state’s governor at the time, Bill Owens, even proclaimed that “It looks as if all of Colorado is burning.”

At one point, city officials even mulled using the Shining Mountain golf course as a defense area with the prospects of building trenches there.

Forest Service officials constantly monitored the blaze and held regular briefings.

The scars from the Hayman then persisted during the heavily-watched arson trial of Terry Barton, who was accused of starting the fire when burning a letter from her estranged husband.

She was initially sentenced  to 12 years behind bars, but this sentence was amended, as the district judge was cited by a later court ruling of having a conflict of interest in the case. The judge was  reportedly concerned himself about the evacuation of a staff member during the fire.

Several years ago, Barton’s probation sentence was extended, and she was ordered to get a 40-hour a week job. She faces restitution payments of $40 million.

Whenever officials know talk about emergency response, they often declare: Remember the Hayman.