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Colorado wildfire: Have we learned any lessons? (+videos)

Ten years after the devastating Hayman Fire caused policy changes and a new federal law, another massive Colorado wildfire is causing destruction. Experts have a good idea about what's wrong, but fixing it is another matter.  

By Mike EckelContributor / June 29, 2012


By all accounts, the fires were devastating. More than 130 homes torched, 38,000 people evacuated, 138,000 acres to the west of Denver and Colorado Springs incinerated, in some places fires burning so hot that nothing but topsoil remained. 

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This was 10 years ago, when the ravages of what came to be known as the Hayman Fire prompted numerous studies and led to federal law designed to reduce the chances of such apocalyptic fires recurring again.

“The Hayman Fire has taken on national significance by becoming an example of a consequence of what is wrong with current forest management policy in this country,” the US Forest Service concluded in a September 2003 report. “Consequently, the more we can learn from it, the more we can use the Hayman experience to inform future debates over both forest and wildfire management strategies.”

As of Friday, Colorado was reeling from what most officials were calling an even more destructive blaze: in Waldo Canyon, on Colorado Springs’s northwest fringes, flames have forced evacuations of 35,000 people, destroyed at least 346 homes and charred 19,000 acres. Coming just weeks after High Park blaze destroyed 257 homes in Fort Collins, north of Denver, 2012 has turned into the most destructive wildfire year in Colorado history.  

“It’s a growing population, it’s the reduced amount of water, it’s a changing climate and it’s the bark beetle – it’s a perfect storm of factors I suppose,” says Brian Rutledge, regional vice president for the National Audubon Society. “Learning is one thing, being able to act is quite another.”

At the time, the destruction of the Hayman blaze stunned both Colorado and the country. Images of flames ripping through communities and reducing mountainsides to ashen moonscapes prompted many to criticize the US Forest Service, whose management policies had disrupted the pattern of cyclical fires that periodically swept through wilderness area cleaning out dead trees and debris but without the catastrophic consequences. By doing that and by encouraging clear-cutting rather than selective cutting, the Forest Service unintentionally made forests prone to bigger, more destructive fires.

“We understand 100 years later that fire is Mother Nature’s way of keeping nature clean, it’s housekeeping,” says Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, an organization that helped restore charred forests in a watershed larger than Rhode Island. “What we have here is the law of unintended consequences that’s coming back to haunt in full blush.”

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