Begun on June 8, 2002, after a US Forest Service employee started a fire at a campsite, the Hayman Fire is the third-largest wildfire in Colorado history. Across a wide swath of foothills between South Park and Colorado Springs, the fire burned nearly 138,000 acres—including 60,000 in just one day—and destroyed more than 600 structures, including 133 houses. The fire also led to the deaths of five firefighters who died in a vehicle crash and one woman who suffered a fatal asthma attack after smoke inhalation.
The immense destruction of the fire, as well as its occurrence during a particularly intense fire season across the West, prompted new federal laws that required federal land managers to clear hazardous fuels in order to avoid huge blowups like the one that occurred during the Hayman Fire.
In addition to its size and damage, the Hayman Fire is remembered for its ironic origins with a Forest Service employee; although the employee confessed, served time in prison, and paid restitution, the exact circumstances and intent surrounding the fire’s ignition remain murky today.
The year 2002 was filled with big fires in the American West, brought on by years of sustained drought and fire suppression that resulted in huge buildups of dry fuels. By year’s end, more than 458 fires would burn 7 million acres across the region. The first week of June brought a streak of abnormally dry weather to Colorado’s Front Range, and forests were brittle and primed to burn after below-average precipitation in previous years.
On June 8, US Forest Service fire prevention technician Terry Lynn Barton was patrolling campgrounds near Lake George, between South Park and Colorado Springs, when she lit a fire in a campsite ring. Why Barton started the fire is still debated, but the blaze quickly escaped her control and overwhelmed the initial responders she called in to help.
On June 9, the day after ignition, dry fuels and gusty winds pushed the Hayman Fire to 1,200 acres—an overnight gain not unheard of for fires in similar conditions. But that day, after overcoming what Forest Service author Russell T. Graham called “an aggressive initial attack” by “air tankers, helicopters, engines, and ground crews,” the Hayman Fire exploded. Low humidity, wind gusts of more than fifty miles per hour, and an uninterrupted supply of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine crowns drove the fire on a massive, 60,000-acre run down the South Platte River drainage to the northeast. The fire forked around Cheesman Reservoir—a major water source for Denver—and formed two fronts that surged northeast toward Castle Rock and the Denver metro area.
Winds died down and humidity increased over the next week, allowing crews to get a better handle on the blaze. Still, by June 18 the Hayman Fire had swelled to more than 137,000 acres and was only 45 percent contained, with more than 2,000 firefighters involved. The return of windy conditions hindered firefighting efforts, but additional moisture arrived the following week, allowing firefighters to reach full containment by June 28.
By the time the Hayman Fire was deemed fully controlled on July 2, the historic size of the conflagration was already apparent, but the scale of its destruction had yet to be understood. The Forest Service alone spent more than $38 million battling the fire, and the total firefighting cost is estimated at $238 million. Insured property losses were not as steep as those from fires in more populated areas, coming in at $48.4 million. The fire displaced a total of 5,340 people, with 350 losing their homes.
Denver’s air quality worsened considerably—the city reported its highest-ever particulate concentration levels during the fire—with unknown health effects on vulnerable populations. In addition, the cities of Denver and Aurora also spent more than $25 million over the next two years removing fire debris and sediment from Cheesman Reservoir and other municipal water sources in the burned area. The Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a watershed-protection group formed in 1998, recruited thousands of volunteers for restoration work.
Already on June 26, Congressman Mark Udall had called for a comprehensive review of the fire in order to better prepare for future combustions. Udall’s suggestions resulted in the completion of a Forest Service case study to help Colorado communities better calibrate their responses to wildfires.
Fate of a Forester
To many observers, just as troubling as the Hayman Fire’s damage was how it started: a member of the US Forest Service, the agency whose tagline is “only you can prevent forest fires,” not only started the fire herself but then lied to investigators about its origin. Terry Lynn Barton initially told Forest Service investigators that the fire started as an out-of-control campfire. But agents soon found that key facts, such as wind direction, refuted Barton’s story, and the thirty-eight-year-old forester confessed that she had started the fire by burning a letter from her estranged husband in a fire ring.
In court statements, Barton maintained that she started the fire accidentally, saying she believed the letter fire had gone out completely before returning to the campsite and discovering the blaze. Although this remains the officially documented story, those involved in the investigation still doubt the veracity of Barton’s confession, or even that she had a letter to burn at all.
Regardless, news of Barton’s actions prompted outrage across Colorado, as well as shock and embarrassment at the Forest Service. Barton was officially charged on June 18, as the fire still burned, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. During her trial, the court received more than forty letters from those who knew Barton, which collectively described her as a warm and kindhearted person who was going through a difficult marriage and would never have set a fire intentionally.
Barton reported to prison on March 24, 2003, and was released on June 2, 2008, after being resentenced to fifteen years of probation, 1,500 hours of community service, and restitution payments totaling more than $58 million—a sum Barton is paying at a rate of between $75 and $150 per month.
The Hayman Fire’s spectacular run on June 9 left a mark on firefighting officials in Colorado. During the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs in 2012, Forest Service fire chiefs warned that crews faced conditions that paralleled June 9, 2002—hours before the fire swept into a neighborhood and killed two people.
But the Hayman Fire’s greatest legacy is likely found in the federal legislation that followed. Signed by President George W. Bush in December 2003, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act requires the Forest Service and other federal land managers to prioritize the clearing of “hazardous fuels” that could contribute to giant fire runs like those seen in the Hayman Fire and others across the West. The act also makes scientific data more accessible for land managers and provides support for community-based fire preparedness across the West.
In addition to the legislation, perhaps another lasting legacy of the Hayman Fire is increased concern about human-started wildfires. In 2012—another summer of disastrous fires in Colorado—High Country News reported that “penalties for accidental fire starts have stiffened” since Barton’s sentencing. In an era of more frequent droughts and record numbers of Americans recreating in western forests, Barton’s multimillion-dollar debt serves to remind the wilderness-faring public that human-set wildfires—even those started accidentally—come with heavy consequences.