Sadness lingers in Dottie Peretz's voice as she talks about the Hayman fire. In a few months, a decade will have passed since Colorado's largest wildfire charred her family's land in Westcreek, leveled an outbuilding and fencing, and left smoke and water damage to their home.
But the pain is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
"The trees are falling down now; they're all dead, all around us. We planted about 100 saplings, but we'll never see them in our lifetime," Peretz says. "It's still quite desolate. It makes you sick."
That gut-wrenching feeling is common among residents of Teller, Douglas, Park and Jefferson counties, where the 2002 catastrophe sparked by a U.S. Forest Service employee in Pike National Forest destroyed 600 structures and caused more than 5,300 people to be evacuated.
Teller County resident Sid Domier recalls keeping a wary eye on the encroaching fire as he built his mountain dream home near Florissant. Even now, he says, "You just always wonder — it's always in the back of everybody's mind, the thought that it could happen at any time."
Fire danger depends on a variety of weather conditions and moisture content of vegetation. Levels of spring snowfall and rain also factor into the equation.
The U.S. Forest Service, the nation's lead wildfire fighting agency, won't release its assessment of this year's wildfire potential until April. But early indications concern some, including the agency's overseer, Harris Sherman.
Speaking Monday night at Colorado College, Sherman said southwestern states, including Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, are locked into a pattern of low precipitation. The lack of moisture has created drought in recent years, and he doesn't see that changing.
"Last year we had extreme fire conditions; Arizona, New Mexico and Texas had the largest fires in their history," Sherman said. "When you oversee the Forest Service and you're seeing these conditions, it's scary."
This year, he adds, "the picture has remained pretty much the same. The Colorado River basin is 35 percent to normal right now."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently designated Lincoln County as a disaster area to help agricultural businesses recoup production losses from drought. Nine other counties, including El Paso and Pueblo, were also given disaster status because of their proximity.
And from the foothills and prairies of Colorado Springs to the mountains west, some are getting ready for what could be another smoke-filled summer.
Last week, the Colorado Springs Fire Department's Wildfire Mitigation Team began installing 30 signs indicating current fire danger at fire stations, in parks and around high-risk neighborhoods, primarily west of Interstate 25 adjacent to public and private wildland areas.
The goal, says Andrew Notbohm, who coordinates the wildfire mitigation program, is to raise awareness of fire danger. Signs will monitor it daily, based on factors such as temperature, humidity, forecasts and vegetative moisture.
"It's been a fairly dry winter in Colorado Springs, and with the cold fronts that bring winds, the grasses tend to dry," he says. "We're anticipating an active fire season."
The National Weather Service's three-month outlook calls for the La Niña weather pattern, which brings drier-than-normal weather, to extend into the spring on a weak to moderate course, says Paul Wolyn, a meteorologist with the NWS' Pueblo office. And the drier and warmer the spring, "the worse it is for fires," he says.
Danger starts now
So even as Steve Segin, regional public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service, says this area still has its wettest and snowiest months to come, he adds that we're in a rough spot: "Even though it's the middle of winter, there's the potential for short-duration fires."
Because Colorado has some 341,000 homes that back forests and other wildlands, Segin says, the threat of evacuations and property damage is high. "It's not a matter of if there will be a wildfire," he says, "but when."
Segin adds that now is a good time to prepare by removing trees and bushes near homes to create a defensible space and taking other precautions, such as not storing firewood under the deck. Colorado Springs residents can get a free consultation about reducing fire risk by calling Notbohm at 385-7342.