As a society, Americans tend to have a short memory when tragedy strikes. We wring our hands and come together as a community, volunteer our time, give money and goods to charity and vow to make sure it never happens again. But a year or so later it’s a distant memory, at least to people we weren’t the victims of the tragedy. We no longer feel the urge to offer support, and get impatient with recovery efforts that we think are taking too long. We want everything to return to how it was before the event.
Thirteen years ago, the largest wildfire
in Colorado history, in terms of acreage, started near Lake George
. The Hayman Fire
burned for more than a month, claiming the lives of a civilian and a team of firefighters — who died in a traffic accident while responding to the fire. In the end, Hayman destroyed 133 houses, burned over 138,000 acres and cost nearly $40 million to extinguish. After more than a decade, the area is still trying to recover.
Three years ago, the Waldo Canyon Fire
erupted west of Colorado Springs
. By the time it was declared under control, 2 people had died, 346 houses had burned to the ground and more than 18,000 acres of wild land were destroyed.
The Waldo Canyon fire caused the long-term closing of Rampart Range Road from Garden of the Gods to the Rampart Reservoir, and cut off access to Waldo Canyon
, Williams Canyon
and the trail systems within them. Portions of the burn scar opened last year, but almost the entire area between highway 24 and Rampart Range Road, including Waldo Canyon and parts of Williams Canyon, remains off-limits.
It’s fairly common to hear people question why the area is still closed, despite all the information on the condition of Waldo Canyon. “Why can’t we go hiking in there?” they ask. “It’s been three years, after all.”
Not much seems to satisfy those who are anxious to hike their beloved trails. To be fair, I’m anxious to go hiking on some of my favorite trails there, too.
But to get a better perspective one only needs to drive about an hour west of the Springs, to the Hayman burn area. A ride north on Highway 67 from Woodland Park to West Creek, or into the Lost Creek Wilderness north of Lake George, offers a look at a vast, treeless wasteland — hundreds of square miles of of barren earth, with only the burned tree trunks left standing. Look at the native grasses, one of the only things growing in the burn scar, and how the typically fast-growing aspen trees are still only 6 to 10’ tall. Take a minute to recall the mudslides and floods that were common in the area every for years after the fire. Remind yourself that the Hayman fire was thirteen years ago, not three.
Then take a ride up Rampart Range Road in the Waldo Canyon burn scar, you’ll see much of the same damage, especially in Queens Canyon. (You can see some of the most severe damage in the upper sections of the Canyons.) I recently had the opportunity to accompany a group of volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Field Institute into Waldo Canyon. During our safety briefing we were reminded that burned trees are still falling down at random, three years after the fire.
As we hiked into the canyon, the fire damage became apparent, the most significant located in the meadow at the bottom of Waldo Canyon and the steep hills surrounding it, many of them without trees to hold back the soil. The banks of the creek running through the meadow are severely eroded, exacerbated by the spring rains. The sediment along the creek is several feet deep — each rain bringing more skree down the hills — and the threat of flooding remains high.
If any hikers or campers were to be in a scene like that during a thunderstorm, which have been common this year, it could prove to be a life-threatening situation.
13 years after the fire occurred, the Hayman burn area is still a hazardous, devastated moonscape spanning hundreds of square miles. How can we expect that the Waldo Canyon burn area would be any better after only three? Nature takes a long time to heal, it’s foolish to think otherwise.
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 23 years. He is the president of the Friends of Cheyenne Canon and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org.