Blazes on suburbia's front porch

Fires near Denver's southwest suburbs, which have forced thousands to evacuate, could take weeks to tame.

Jason Griffith lives in Shamballah, a forested area outside Denver where curious deer, bears, and a 10-foot boulder accent his 1940s-era home built of scrap lumber and homemade nails. But this week, Mr. Griffith found himself eating donated pepperoni pizza off a Styrofoam tray in a school gymnasium here, where the entertainment was cards and Parcheesi.

Griffith is one of thousands of people who have taken refuge from the headstrong fire consuming parts of the Colorado countryside, forcing one of the largest fire-related evacuations in modern US history.

The blaze, which authorities now say could take more than a month to fully control, is unusual for at least two reasons: the sheer intensity of the flames, which firefighters are comparing to the 1988 Yellowstone inferno, and its threat to a major metropolitan area.

While Denver itself appeared in no imminent danger Thursday, concern remains about suburbs on the southwest rim of the city. At least 5,000 people have already been evacuated in the plains and foothills this week, but at least 40,000 more were being admonished to go through their keepsakes in case they were asked to quickly move out.

Though the largest in Colorado history, the Hayman fire, so far, has not been as destructive as it could have been, given how close it has come to a major urban area. By early yesterday, it had destroyed 22 homes and burned more than 100,000 acres.

The devastating fire that swept through the Oakland, Calif., hills in 1991 charred 2,700 homes. Some 260 homes were destroyed in the Los Alamos, N.M., fire two years ago.

Flint-dry conditions

Nonetheless, the conflagration here, which authorities say was started by humans, remains an ominous threat because of the flint-dry conditions and fickle winds. For most of the week, firefighters could do little to even battle the blaze because of its intensity. At one point, it was advancing in spots by 2 m.p.h. as winds shot the flames up mountainsides like solar flares.

"These folks haven't had significant snow or rain in a long time. When you superimpose wind on top, it goes like gasoline," fire commander Kim Martin said this week.

In that sense, the Hayman fire may presage a summer of discontent for the American West. A prolonged drought, coupled with a growing migration of people into forested areas to live, has authorities bracing for a long season from New Mexico to Montana.

"We have people who enjoy the wildlands and want to move out of the urban areas and into less populated areas near the rangelands and forests," says Nancy Lull of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. "They like the beauty and the quiet. At the same time there are risks associated with living in those areas."

As much as anywhere, the Denver area underscores how the inexorable march of suburbia into the woods can contribute to fire hazards.

The Rocky Mountain News this year undertook an analysis of local high-hazard fire areas, called "red zones." It found that in the 1990s the number of homes in those areas rose by about 33 percent, and new residents increased by 47 percent. By 2000, that equaled about 75,400 houses and 172,400 people.

This love of trees comes at a cost. By one estimate, wildfire damage to homes and property nationwide increased sixfold from the 1980s to the 1990s, for a total of $3.2 billion. In Colorado, the price tag for just the Hayman fire has already reached $20 million.

"When people move into those areas, it does change the way we use resources," says Sgt. Tim Moore of the Sheriff's Department in Douglas County, one of the area's hit by the Hayman fire.

So far in 2002, more than 1.4 million acres have been charred nationwide, almost double the national average for this time of year. In Colorado, at least eight fires are still burning across the state. One near Glenwood Springs in the western part of the state, started by an underground coal seam that may have been burning for as long as 100 years, has destroyed at least 28 homes.

But the Hayman fire remains the biggest concern. At least 540 firefighters are battling the blaze, and more were being summoned at the end of the week. The weather cooperated enough by Thursday to allow firefighters to at least go on the offensive in trying to corral the flames.

A quick exit

Despite the hazards, many of the people in the shelter here in Castle Rock, 25 miles south of Denver, don't want to leave their Shangri-Las in the woods. Griffith moved with Kristina Baker and their young son to Shamballah 1 1/2 years ago for "spiritual" reasons. He didn't think about fire danger.

"But our parents did," he recalls. "We were too ... 'Wow, it's beautiful out here.' "

To try to protect their home, Ms. Baker says last summer she cleared leaves and debris around the perimeter, and trimmed the scrub oak. Earlier this week, the family had to make one of those wrenching decisions about what to take when you have to evacuate a home quickly. They fled with with basics such as paperwork, toiletries, and their two cats. They also took some cherished books, hand drums, and baby toys.

The Hayman fire has not deterred them from living where they do. "I don't care where you live geographically, you're going to have something to deal with," says Griffith, referring to disasters such as hurricanes.

While the temporary living in the gym here is a world away from their mountain living, Griffith and others aren't complaining. They're being sustained with amenities including donated phones, cots, and candy. Residents also depend on the shelter as a hub for finding neighbors and receiving updates.

Evacuees praise the kindness of those who helped them shuttle belongings out of the mountains on 10 minutes' notice. Susan Ayres still marvels at her strength as she lifted her great grandmother's brass bed into a friend's Toyota pickup.

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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