Fire restrictions eased; Disaster concerns continue to escalate
Teller County and the Pikes Peak area got a temporary reprieve from Mother Nature, in the form of some long-awaited humidity.
But officials are urging residents not to get too comfortable and to prepare for an impending evacuation this summer and to follow proper safety rules. And if in doubt, remember the Hayman, a horrific wildfire that happened 20 years ago this week and changed the face of the region and became a clear symbol of wildfire dangers facing Colorado.
County commissioners, taking the advice of emergency response experts and fire department officials in the area, have agreed to rescind the current Stage 2 restriction and return the area to regulation of step 1.
Under Stage 1 restrictions, outdoor barbecues are permitted as well as smoking outdoors. Stage 1 is the most 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 placed on Phase 2 alert, one step away from closing the area for recreational purposes. The timing could not have been better for the Stage 2 warning, as several hours after the stricter restrictions were implemented, South Teller was hit by the High Park Fire. The blaze, the largest wildfire to hit the region this year, has burned more than 1,500 acres. A disaster designation has been declared.
The fight against High Park involved heavy crews from local, state and federal teams. The fire was brought under control, after a week-and-a-half battle that was declared a great success by local leaders. Their fight was aided by Mother Nature as the area received a massive snowstorm that delivered nearly 30 inches in part of Teller County.
Over the past week, more traditional spring moisture patterns have returned, allowing the region to retreat to a level of Stage 1 restrictions.
But this retreat comes with severe caveats. Stay vigilant and follow the fire safety instructions.
Memories of the Hayman Fire Linger
The current dry conditions rival those that persisted 20 years ago when Teller County was hit by the Hayman Fire, which erupted on June 8, 2002. It was started by a former utility worker forests and spanned almost 150,000 acres and led to the evacuation. of over 5,000 people in some 20 counties, including Teller. At the time, it became the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
It burned 68,000 acres on its first day, with fires raging through Park, Teller, Jefferson and Douglas counties.
For a solid month, the region was bombarded by media representatives across the country, as the Hayman became a symbol of the problems associated with persistent western drought and dense forest and a renewed call for better high country fire mitigation. The issue of climate change even came into play.
The Hayman has become a wake-up call for Teller County. As for a solid five years, Teller came through relatively unscathed, as a number of fires occurred nearby but never really hit our area.
This week, memories linger, especially among those who have lost their belongings. The Hayman Fire, coupled with the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, heightened fire safety concerns.
The day the fire started, the blaze at an incredible level from Lake George to the highway. 67 north of Woodland Park. On a personal level, I spotted the Hayman at a dinner party at Shining Mountain and thought it was just a campfire that had gotten out of hand.
This theory was completely shattered the next day when it expanded to over 50,000 acres.
Nightly meetings were held at Woodland Park High School, the official evacuation center, to notify neighborhoods of people who lost their homes. But sometimes Woodland Park was even threatened.
The state’s governor at the time, Bill Owens, even proclaimed that “it seems like all of Colorado is burning.”
At one point, city officials even considered using the Shining Mountain golf course as a defense zone with the prospect of building trenches there.
Forest Service officials constantly monitored the fire and held regular briefings.
The Hayman’s scars then lingered during the closely watched arson trial of Terry Barton, who was accused of starting the fire by burning a letter from her ex-husband.
She was originally sentenced to 12 years behind bars, but that sentence was changed, as the district judge was cited by a later court ruling as having a conflict of interest in the case. The judge himself was reportedly concerned about the evacuation of a member of staff during the fire.
Several years ago, Barton’s probation sentence was extended and he was ordered to get a 40-hour-a-week job. She faces restitution payments of $40 million.
Whenever officials know how to talk about emergency response, they often say: Remember the Hayman.