On a hot June 8, 2002, U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton burned a letter while patrolling for illegal campfires. The fire got away.
Dry conditions and hot, windy weather made it into a monster.
One spark; 138,000 acres of Colorado forest reduced to ashes. Barton went to prison; 133 families lost their homes. It took six weeks to finally extinguish.
For city dwellers, it was a distant threat, a smoky smell in the air and haze on the horizon that, while an inconvenience for mountain travel, probably didn’t impact individual lives.
For the people who lived, worked or had second homes among the ponderosa pine forests, it was a life-jarring disaster. For those who stayed or rebuilt, the bare hillsides are a daily reminder of Hayman, a new normalcy that won’t look much different in any of our lifetimes.
The fire changed lives. It exposed flaws in how forests are managed and how fires are fought. It inspired extraordinary acts of courage and the indomitable will of many of those affected to recover in the face of devastation and lingering impacts of the fire that continue today.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the blaze, The Gazette takes a look back, to the time when, as then-Gov. Bill Owens said, it looked “as if all of Colorado is burning.”
Click here for a timeline of the Hayman Fire
Deckers: A community bounces back
In the dry days before the fire, people prayed for rain. After the fire, people in the Deckers area cringed when it rained.
“We’ve had 12 floods in 10 years. We’ve lost access to our driveway every time,” said Lynne Ronk, whose home on Colorado Highway 67 just south of the hamlet of Deckers was destroyed in the fire’s furious first days.
On hillsides laid bare by the flames, there is nothing to slow or soak up runoff, and even moderate rain can produce a torrent. And when it really rains, as it did July 8, 2006, flash floods can cause devastation. Two inches of rain swelled West Creek and Horse Creek into raging rivers that destroyed homes and wiped out eight miles of Highway 67, cutting off Deckers from the south for months.
It was a tough blow for a community that has weathered a lot of hard times.
Located 23 miles north of Woodland Park, Deckers had long been a popular getaway for Colorado Springs and Denver, with some of the best trout fishing in the state. The Horse Creek Cafe and Saloon was a favorite eating stop for dozens of years.
The saloon is gone, a casualty of the flames. Cheesman Reservoir has been closed to hiking and fishing on and off since the fire.
Fishing outfitter Danny Brennan, owner of shop Flies ‘n Lies, said the area lost 50 percent of its trout habitat. Every time it rained, he had to cancel what guided trips he had because the South Platte River ran black.
“Each year you tighten your belt a little tighter,” he said. “People had favorite spots in the Platte. They’d been fishing them for years. Then they come up and it might be full of gravel and mud and they think the whole river is ruined.”
Brennan said fish populations have returned to 75 percent of what they were before the fire.
Businesses are open in the small shopping center that makes up the tiny town, and people have returned here with the fish.
Lynne Ronk and her husband, Dick, moved here in 1992, drawn by the natural beauty and the relative seclusion, where you could have privacy yet still have a neighbor a mile away.
When they got the order to evacuate, they already had a box packed, because of the Schoonover fire two weeks before. There was nothing left when they were allowed home after Hayman was contained.
“We lost everything,” Lynne Ronk said.
Some gave up and left. The Ronks never considered not rebuilding.
“We believe the Lord felt we whould stay here,” she said.
They rebuilt the house higher up, to avoid the floods and face what little green there is in the area. Insurance didn’t cover everything, so they pay a mortgage, something she didn’t expect to be doing at 67. They have a moveable bridge for when the floods wash out their driveway. And they don’t have any more trees on their land to cut for Christmas trees, so theirs is plastic.
And Ronk knows she won’t see the forest change in her lifetime. Only 10 percent of the pines they plant survive.
But their faith in God and their love of the landscape, changed as it is, keeps them here.
“These mountains will be beautiful again,” Ronk told The Gazette in 2002 after the fire.
She was asked, 10 years later, how she feels about staying.
“I don’t regret it at all.”
The forest recovers
To call the task “daunting” may be an understatement.
When Chris Kuennen took over the planting effort for Pike National Forest in 2005, hardly anything grew.
About half of the burn area is considered “severe,” meaning most trees and vegetation were destroyed, as the fire crowned and raced through forests, fed by furious winds. In many of these areas, no trees survive to spread seeds.
The U.S. Forest Service has been planting about 1,000 acres a year in these areas, and this spring planted its millionth pine seedling. About two-thirds survive, though it will be 75 years before the slow-growing ponderosa pines can drop their own seeds.
Meanwhile, nature is recovering in many places. Aspens grow 15 to 20 feet high, and the ground that was bare a decade ago is now kaleidoscope of shrubs, grasses and flowers. Wildlife has returned to the area, making it popular among hunters.
“In the last three or four years, I’ve really seen an explosion of green. I’ve seen a lot more signs of deer and elk in this country over the last few years than in the first four or five (after the fire),” Kuennen said.
Most encouraging, though, are the small pines and Douglas firs that have sprouted on their own on about 5,000 severely burned acres.
While the project will continue as long as there is funding, the overall goal is to plant 15,000 acres.
“I look at what we’ve accomplished versus what was burned, it seems like a small amount, if you just look at the numbers,” Kuennen said. “You have to be realistic in the scope of what’s going on.”
“At the end of my job, hopefully it was enough to give the survivability a boost.”
In debt for life, and then some
Unless Terry Barton wins the lottery or gets her hands on some other large windfall, the chance that she will pay off her court-ordered debts for starting the massive 2002 Hayman fire is quite slim.
However, Barton is not in jeopardy of missing the deadline.
In 2008 the court ordered her to pay $44,545,879.01 for starting the Hayman fire that burned almost 140,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes. The former U.S. Forest Service employee has until Nov. 25, 9995 — another seven millennia – to pay it off, according to Teller County court records.
“They usually want it paid off by the end of probation,” said Janell Sciacca, the Teller County Clerk of the Court. But that’s a pretty big amount.”
Barton, whose burning a love letter is blamed for the Hayman blaze, received 15 years probation, scheduled to end in March 2018.
Since 2008, Barton has paid $3,264, usually making payments of $75 per month on the balance that has grown by just over $6,000 as more victims have come forward.
Court documents showed in mid-May that 964 people in Teller, Park, Douglas and Jefferson counties were on the victim list. With what Barton has paid, each would receive $3.38, but the court won’t even cut a check until it exceeds $5, Sciacca said.
Barton’s payments are just enough to keep the authorities off her back.
Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Courts probation department, said Barton’s payments are enough to comply with state rules.
“There’s a big difference between someone who’s actively contributing to the debt and somebody who’s just not paying,” he said.
McCallum said that, in late May, records showed that Barton was not only following through on making restitution payments, she is in full compliance with all the terms of her probation.
The terms require Barton to stay in Colorado unless granted permission to leave, maintain a job and permanent home, and abstain from alcohol or drug use among other obligations.
Barton has been out of prison since 2008. She served six years of a 12-year sentence before an appeal brought a resentencing in 2008. A Teller County judge ruled Barton should have only been given six years, the 15-year probation and an order to pay the restitution.
Despite the prison time, emotions from victims, firefighters and others are mixed when asked about Barton’s role in the 2002 blaze.
Another former forest service employee Laura Jarrow, a Westcreek resident who had the flames come right up to her house, said some people who lost homes during Hayman have expressed anger, not only toward Barton but toward the U.S. Forest Service. Jarrow’s daughter, Felicia Bright, thinks that Barton should talk to the media to “bring some resolve” for those who blame the now 48-year-old.
In contrast Gary Bieske, also from Westcreek doesn’t blame Barton despite his Pikes Peak Resort burning in the fire.
“She had no intention of starting the fire and it was just one of those accidents that happen and my heart pours out to her,” Bieske said. “Her little incident was the one that was the spark and the forest was ready to burn. The spark was going to come from somewhere sooner or later. We hadn’t managed the forest, cleared trees around our homes. It was unhealthy. Terry Barton was just the spark.”
Lake George Fire Protection District Chief Dutch Kleinhesselink worked alongside Barton for three years when she helped fight fires for the forest service near the small town at the Teller/Park county line. Kleinhesselink said he understands her perspective and that of the victims that lost property, but said there’s “no way” she set the fire intentionally.
“She is an excellent firefighter. She is an excellent human being,” Kleinhesselink said. “But she screwed up. Her life will never be the same.”
Hayman helped change how fires are battled
Gene Stanley remembers the frustration.
The fire chief of the Southern Park County Fire Protection District in Guffey was close enough to Hayman to smell the smoke – but his department wasn’t called in the crucial first hours of the blaze.
“It was a while before we were called in,” recalled Stanley, who recently retired as fire chief.
Reporting by The Gazette after Hayman revealed a trend by the Forest Service of ignoring rural fire departments in the initial hours of a forest fire, though they can respond much more quickly than federal wildfire crews.
Stanley said it wasn’t just during Hayman. He recalled an earlier fire when water was dropped by an airplane on his firefighters, because of a lack of warning and cooperation with Forest Service firefighting officials.
“There was no communication. That has changed a lot since then,” Stanley said.
After Hayman, federal officials began offering special “red-card” training for volunteer firefighters and created a new dispatching system to ensure the local resources are tapped when a fire is reported.
Stanley said the system has worked, and in recent years there has been “very, very, very good communication and cooperation” between local fire departments and federal land managers.
Firefighters and residents still debate if things could have been different had there been a larger and quicker response in Hayman’s first hours. Stanley doesn’t join in.
“My personal feeling is that this was one of those fires when all the ducks were lined up and it wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.
Hot winds and bone-dry forests meant there wasn’t much that could be done when the fire raced across the landscape, consuming 77,000 acres in two days, said Steve Segin, public affairs officer with the Forest Service’s regional office in Denver.
“Sometimes the conditions are such that you can have all the resources in the world, but if the conditions are right – strong winds, very dry conditions – the fire gets into the crown (of trees) and there’s not a whole lot you can do other than get in there and do point protection around structures,” Segin said.
“The fire moved with such an intensity you can’t safely put people in front of it.”
What did prevent the fire from blazing northeast, possibly toward the Denver suburbs, was a fire break, a controversial fuels treatment project carried out there year before. Why, people asked, would forest managers purposely set fires and tear down healthy trees to prevent more fires?
Nobody asks that question anymore.
Hayman showed most Coloradans that wider approach to fire prevention was needed. The year before Hayman, in Colorado, 13,529 acres of national forest in the “wildland-urban interface,” the area where forests meet homes, were thinned to reduce fire fuels. A decade later, in 2011, nearly 32,000 acres were treated.
In some cases, fires in remote areas, not threatening property, allowed to just burn, a new appreciation of fire’s natural role in the forest.
“We don’t necessarily look at fire that every fire needs to be put out as quickly possible,” Segin said.
During Hayman, a lot of resources were spent trying to prevent the blaze from spreading into the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, an rugged area with no homes or buildings. Today, officials might have let it burn, a natural way to remove the deadfall and underbrush.
Said Segin, “(Fire) is a natural part of the environment. These forests were designed to burn. They’re fire-adapted ecosystems, so when a fire gets in there it’s going to burn.”
For Felicia Bright, the Hayman Fire will be burned deeply in her memory for decades to come.
A 14-year-old Westcreek resident at the time of Colorado’s largest-ever wildfire, Bright was touring Rome when she heard the news of the blaze. Upon returning from her Woodland Park Middle School class trip, the teenager’s world was rocked, if only temporarily.
Bright had no problem remembering the monthlong ordeal as she sat with her mother, Laura Jarrow, in late April in the family’s home at the northeast extreme of the Hayman scar.
Flames had run along the ground and approached the Westcreek home. But Tim Jarrow, Bright’s father and a volunteer firefighter, was able to check on the house and make sure it didn’t burn while the rest of the family waited out the fire elsewhere.
“Every day, he’d come to the hotel and say, ‘It’s still there,’” Bright said of the house.
The family stayed for three weeks at a pair of Woodland Park hotels and a few days in a small motel room in Green Mountain Falls that “had a kitchenette,” Bright said.
The new quarters meant adventure for Felicia and her brother Patrick Bright, who was 12 at the time.
“I was displaced, living in a hotel, as a kid, it was exciting,” Bright said.
Felicia lives in Woodland Park now, but her memory is jogged every time she returns to her parents’ house in Westcreek. The Hayman scar is a long-lasting reminder along the ridge just a half mile behind the home.
Bright uses the term “stickland” when referring to that dessicated ridge and acres of burned out forest some 50 yards in front of the family property.
“Stickland” revealed roads and houses previously hidden by tree. It is a playground lost after the blaze.
After the fire, kids no longer swam or fished in Westcreek Lake, which sits just behind the house. Laura Jarrow said every time it would rain, ash would turn the once-pristine mountain lake to ink.
“It was gross,” Bright said. “When you’d go down to the lake, there would be dead fish on the shore. They were discolored and deformed.”
Every time the Brights and Jarrows drive Colorado Highway 67 from Woodland Park to Westcreek another vision jumps back into their minds.
The usually deserted 14-mile stretch of road was “like a parade,” Laura Jarrow said of the day the road was opened and residents began to return home.
“It was bumper to bumper all the way home,” Bright said. “People from all over were coming through to look at (the Hayman burn area).”
A dream destroyed, then rebuilt to showcase burn
On Memorial Day weekend 2002, Gary Bieske’s dream-opened business: a resort with luxury cabins near Westcreek, where Front Range residents could escape to spend a couple of days among the ponderosa pine forests.
Talk about your bad timing.
Two weeks later, Bieske wasn’t entertaining guests, but working to save his neighbors’ homes from the fire, as a volunteer with the Westcreek Fire Department.
When the flames took a sudden turn and raced toward Westcreek late in the blaze, all he could do was evacuate.
When he returned, his two cabins were destroyed and his dream seemed up in smoke.
“There was just no stopping that fire. It had to stop on its own. And unfortunately we got the very tail end of the fire," Bieske said.
“It was hard to make the decision to rebuild. Will people still come visit? Will people still like it here? I’m really glad we did.”
Ten years later, there is green at the 240-acre resort — pines that were spared the flames in areas where he thinned before the fire. And there are aspens, growing 15 to 20 feet high.
They came up on their own after the fire, the next step in the forest life cycle.
There are new pines, too. Most are just ankle-high.
Guests are coming not inspite of the fire, but to see a forest in transition.
“The time after the fire, the negative comments we had from guests staying here was kind of overwhelming. But boy over the last four or five years, as we’ve cleaned it up and it’s greened up and little seedling trees have popped up and wildlife has been bountiful and all that, it’s been a pretty positive experience for most people staying out here.”
Before Hayman, the pines were unnaturally thick, 400 to 500 an acre, because there had been no logging or wildfires in a century. The forest floor was a sea of pine needles, devoid of wildflowers, where animals could find little food.
Though he lost a lot, he has rebuilt and sees transition in these hills, not desolation.
“It’s pretty amazing. The first five years, it seemed like it was just the work that we’d done that paid off. But in the last five years, it’s phenomenal what Mother Nature is doing on her own,” he said.
Changed in a blaze
A Saturday afternoon stroll turned into a whole new way of thinking for at least one Lake George resident after the Hayman Fire torched the forest just a few miles from his home.
Bob Repschlaeger has his motor home sitting in his driveway, packed “with the base necessities” in case a quick escape is needed.
“Before (Hayman), I don’t think we even thought about it,” the 12-year Lake George resident said when asked if he had an evacuation plan. You hope it doesn’t happen again, but you’re prepared more so than you were before.”
Repschlaeger, 54 at the time of the Hayman fire, had left his home at Eleven Mile Ranch just after noon on June 8, 2002, to walk around the lake and get a little exercise.
The first thing Repschlaeger noticed was the weather.
“The wind was blowing tremendously that day, really strong,” he said.
Then, as he looked to the northeast, something caught Repschlaeger’s eye that he didn’t normally see over the hills toward the Pike National Forest. A plume of gray smoke had just begun to rise over the horizon.
“It wasn’t huge at that time,” he remembered. “But I thought, ‘It’s close.’”
And he was right. The Hayman fire began just a few miles away from the small town on the border of Teller and Park counties. It took about an hour for Repschlaeger to realize that the blaze was growing, and growing fast.
Repschlaeger pulled out his cellphone and called his wife, who was at home. He told her to put turn on the TV to see if it was being reported. She told him that it was all that was showing on the news stations out of Denver.
The smoke from Hayman drove him to seek relief in the low country after three days. It would become a month-long ordeal.
Repschlaeger quickly loaded that same motor home that serves as a reminder and the couple temporarily moved to the Fountain Creek RV Park at U.S. 24 and 31st Street in Colorado Springs.
The couple now plans to head “down the hill” at the first sign of disaster.
“You always expect it up here now, especially with the dry weather,” he said.
The beginning of the end
Just afternoon on June 8, 2002, Lake George Fire Chief Kleinhesselink and his band of volunteers dashed into action.
As smoke poured above the horizon north of the small central Colorado town, Kleinhesselink’s crew got ready to move, watching the plume move quickly to the east.
The chief ordered his engines to roar up Colorado Highway 77 and cut off the blaze that had begun in a fire ring on National Forest land.
“(Highway) 77 was our anchor point,” Kleinhesselink said as he packed his pipe May 10 and sat at a picnic table just outside of Lake George Fire Station No. 1.
“That’s where we were going to stop it,” the chief added as he looked across U.S. 24 to the area where Hayman began
The engines headed up the highway with their sites set on a house, about five miles from the fire station.
“We were concerned about private property No. 1,” Kleinhesselink said.
Lake George firefighters prepared the house, creating a defensible space, as gusts of up to 60 mph pushed the blaze toward them.
Terry Barton had picked a hot, windy day to burn her letter in the fire ring between highways 24 and 77. The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning that day, meaning fire danger was at its highest.
But Kleinhesslink was confident the fire could be stopped. After all, east of Highway 77 was a half-mile wide valley with Tarryall Creek in the middle of it. The almost treeless swath of land would surely mean relief from what had become an exciting afternoon, he thought.
The Lake George chief said that with the dry, warm, windy spring near the Teller/Park County line, the U.S. Forest Service was prepared for the worst.
“They even had a helicopter here,” Kleinhesselink said. “That’s not normal.”
By the time the fire reached 77, the Forest Service had called in a second helicopter to attack the blaze.
“The real problem was Mother Nature’s wrath,” Kleinhesselink said. “That fire was so hot, so intense and the wind was so bad.”
The fire moved through the forest, approaching the ridge to the west of the house that the Lake George firefighters successfully protected as afternoon turned into evening. The wind picked up again, however, and crowned hundreds of yards over Highway 77, “throwing spot fires all over the meadow and up the far side of the valley,” the chief said.
It didn’t take long for the blaze to ride the wind and move into the heavy timber to the east of the valley and into what Kleinhesselink called “unaccessible” forest.
According to a Forest Service case study, Hayman burned 290 acres on June 8 and spread to about 1,200 acres by 8 a.m. the next day. The fight continued, but the blaze grew, destroying more than 60,000 acres before June 9 ended.
“And a month later we came home,” Kleinhesselink said.