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What’s the Largest Wildfire in Colorado’s History?

Colorado is one of the Western states that is annually plagued by a number of wildfires, and has a known season for the development of these fires. On June 8th, 2002, the state experienced the largest wildfire in its history, with more than 138,000 acres being consumed by the enormous blaze. This fire was known as the Hayman Fire, and it occurred approximately 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs, and 22 miles to the southwest of Denver.

It required hundreds of firefighters to battle the rapidly moving flames, which eventually burned down 133 houses and forced over 5,000 citizens to evacuate their homes and the towns. The fire was not fully contained until July 18th of that year, meaning it burned for more than a month before it was finally brought under control.

Eventually, it would be determined that the largest fire in state history was caused by an act of arson. Ironically, the fire itself was named for a deserted ghost town which had risen to prominence when the mining industry flourished there, and after the huge fire swept through the area, it looked even more deserted than in the days after the mining boom.

You can stay up to date on current brush fires by looking at an updated Colorado wildfire map, but what are the worst fires in history?

The Hayman Fire of 2002

This fire represents one of the rare cases where a single individual has been identified as the perpetrator in starting the fire, and oddly enough that person was a forestry technician with the U.S. Forest Service. Her name was Terry Barton, and she actually set the fire inside a campfire ring, claiming that she was simply attempting to burn a letter from her estranged husband.

This claim was disputed by many local citizens, who instead believed that she set the fire so that she could avoid traveling to other states to fight forest fires that year, and could at least stay in her native state to do her job. Other people believed that she started the fire just so she could assist in putting it out and become a local hero in doing so.

The simple campfire blaze that she started quickly grew out of control because of the dry weather conditions, and ended up torching a great deal of the landscape in four separate counties. In the aftermath of the blaze, a federal grand jury indicted Terry Barton on four individual arson counts. Barton pleaded guilty to setting a fire on federal forest land as well as to lying to court officers in her defense, and those pleas were taken into account in sentencing her. Although prosecutors wanted to impose a $14 million fine on her for some of the firefighting costs, the judge declined to execute that, understanding that it would be sentencing her to a life of poverty. She was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, and in March of 2018 she was re-sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service and to serving an additional 15 years of probation, as well as the $14 million owed in restitution.

The Aftermath

At its final estimation the fire cost $40 million in suppression expenses, as well as private property losses accumulating up to more than $40 million, and also caused the death of five firefighters and one civilian. 600 buildings were burned in the fire, 133 of which were residences, and 466 of which were outbuildings, such as sheds and barns, and 1 commercial structure . For weeks and months after the fire, the level of fine particulates in the atmosphere were at record levels, jeopardizing the health of area citizens.

In the aftermath of the wildfire, flooding plagued the area due to the vegetation cover being eliminated, and a large number of roads and bridges were washed out. Sediment runoff flooded into the main water source for the city of Denver, and it cost taxpayers an additional $25 million to have this sediment dredged out. It is estimated that local businesses lost at least 50% of their seasonal tourist income, because there was a steep decline of tourism in the area for the remainder of that year.

The West Fork Complex Fire 2013

The West Fork Complex Fire was actually composed of three separate fires, and was triggered on June 5, 2013 near Wolf Creek Pass in an area of southern Colorado. The three smaller fires which combined to make the Complex Fire were the Papoose Fire, the West Fork Fire, and the Windy Pass Fire. Much of the area burned in this complex fire was within the Weminuche Wilderness, but the fire did spread to surrounding national forest land in San Juan and the Rio Grande National Forests.

Many of the trees consumed in this fire had already been killed by the spruce beetle, and as such were equivalent to kindling once the fire got started. When the fire began, it quickly became so intense that it was impossible to mount any serious firefighting strategy, so it was left to burn itself out for several days before any remedial efforts could be undertaken.

Mass Evacuation

All three of the smaller fires comprising the Complex Fire were started by lightning strikes, and when they combined to form the Complex Fire, it quickly became a massive struggle to prevent the spread of the fire into more populated areas. The Windy Pass Fire for instance, eventually reached a popular ski area, where vacationers had to be evacuated and structures were destroyed by the wildfire.

Other communities had to be evacuated which were in the direct line of the wildfire, for instance South Fork and Wagon Wheel Gap. This fire raged virtually out of control for more than a month, and it wasn’t until July 19th, seven weeks after its start, that the West Fork Complex Fire was largely brought under control. Even so, it smoldered for weeks afterward and had to be monitored very closely, because any re-triggering could have started it off again on a new path of destruction.

The main reason that it was finally brought under some level control on July 19th is that heavy precipitation had fallen in that area, and had taken much of the momentum out of the advancing fire. By the time this fire was brought under control, more than 110,000 acres of forest land in the Weminuche Wilderness had been torched.

As with most wildfires, the breathing air in the immediate aftermath of the wildfire was polluted with fine particulates that endangered the health of area residents, and threatened anyone in the area with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

Final Thoughts

These two wildfires, considered the two worst in state history for Colorado, represent an interesting contrast in terms of their origins. In the case of the West Fork Complex Fire of 2013, several small fires combined into a major one, and each one of the smaller fires had been triggered by lightning strikes. This of course, is a totally natural cause which cannot be prevented by any level of preparedness, although good preparation undoubtedly saved some structures from being consumed.

By contrast, the Hayman fire is known to have been started intentionally by a single individual, and that individual was actually an employee of the United States Forestry Service. This is a fire that could and should have been prevented, and yet grew to be the single worst wildfire in state history. Wildfires ultimately can be started in a number of different ways, and any one of those wildfires has the potential to destroy untold amounts of property and acreage, as well as affecting the health of anyone in the immediate or surrounding area.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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