Wildfires Devastate More Than Trees

As I write this, the largest wildfire in Arizona history has burned more than 800 square miles. It is one of three major fires roaring through that state and nearby New Mexico. Crews are expected to contain one of them soon, a 350 square mile fire, but only because the fuel is gone. Entire forests have been destroyed and there’s nothing left to burn.

Nine years ago Colorado experienced its worst fire in state history, the Hayman fire. It burned 138,000 acres over 20 days, destroyed 132 homes, and led to the death of six people.

My wife and I camped last weekend near the northern edge of that fire’s legacy. The site along Buffalo Creek is nestled under massive Ponderosa pine trees in the heart of Pike National Forest. We enjoyed a quick hike to join the Colorado Trail, watching squirrels and chipmunks scamper among the rocks, bushes, and trees. Our young Yellow Lab Lily eagerly ran beside us as we enjoyed all that nature bestowed. Friends joined us for dinner and it became an enchanting evening under the stars with the wind blowing through the trees encouraging the towering branches to dance and sway.

The following morning my wife thumbed through our favorite campground guide for a new location to try on our next excursion. We’ve camped at Buffalo Campground before, and enjoy it, but are always eager to find fresh and rewarding camping experiences. She found a likely candidate in Goose Creek. It wasn’t much of a diversion on our trip home so we decided to check it out.

Exiting the state highway, we traveled 11 miles on a dirt and gravel road. Eleven miles through forest that the Hayman fire hadn’t spared. I use the term forest only because it is technically still part of the Pike National Forest, though it doesn’t exist as a forest in the conventional sense. I could call it a forest of arboreal grave markers or a forest of blackened spires, but that is too poetic.

A poertion of the Hayman fire burn area

There is nothing poetic about the devastation we witnessed for those 11 miles. We’d commented to each other about the fire on every previous trip into Pike Forest; you could see endless burned trees from the main state highway. But this journey into the heart of the destruction was gut wrenching. Thinking about it generates a physical reaction again.

Charred stumps still remain along the narrow, washboard road. I tried to imagine how this trek would differ a decade earlier. In places the road wasn’t wide enough for two vehicles and the long branches from ancient trees on either side must have touched to form an evergreen canopy. The cool of the forest on hot summer days must have made this a marvelous place. The beauty would have been breathtaking, as it is in so many spots in Colorado.

But all of that is gone. The campground stands as an oasis in the desert of blackened stumps. Closed for years because of concerns about flooding, it is open again. The flooding concerns were because of the Hayman fire. With the trees and brush gone there was nothing to slow the rush of rain as it built to torrents that collected fire debris and rushed through the mountain valleys. Minimal growth of a few grasses and sparse groundcover must be enough to alleviate those fears now.

The historic fire miraculously spared this campground of only ten campsites, nestled among living trees along a stone-filled creek. Inside the campground we were surrounded by green, the murmur of the cascading water, life, and typical Colorado beauty, but it doesn’t extend beyond this minuscule enclave. We stopped to investigate and talk with the verbose campground host. After commenting on his duties, the beauty of the site, and ignorant campers, the conversation naturally turned to fire, the fires of today and the great fire of nine years ago. It was unavoidable.

You might be able to ignore spinach in the teeth, a nervous tic, or a bad haircut when conversing with a new acquaintance, but there is no ignoring wildfire devastation. Eleven miles of depressing visions that extend to each horizon is too much to disregard.

The camp host had just come from cleaning up a site with a smoldering fire pit. When he shoveled the ashes into his plastic bucket they melted the bottom. I could only shake my head and cringe in shock. These uneducated, lazy, or criminally negligent campers left without completely dousing their fire. The Hayman fire began with a burning piece of paper in a fire ring at an official campground. The only upside might be that if their negligence were to start a new fire it would only burn this campground; there’s nothing left to burn outside it. But I don’t consider that much of a positive point.

Our area of the state is under severe outdoor fire restrictions. The county just south of these two campgrounds has banned all outdoor fire to include cigarettes. Lack of rain, exceptionally dry grass, and high winds seem to be the daily rule. Colorado Springs has received only 15 percent of the precipitation we should have for the month; our yearly total is a third of normal. Everyone talks about the weather.

You might think that people, particularly campers, would be extra vigilant during times like these. That is true for many, but there are always the few who flaunt disdain for the restrictions. The road to Buffalo Campground was lined with campers who didn’t want to pay to stay in the official campground and who burned open fires in violation of a ban. That campground host told me the sheriff was making regular rounds up and down the road handing out $500 tickets.

Bans, obvious devastation a few miles down the road, and expensive citations aren’t enough to influence some of the population. If a legal fire is left smoldering, I have to wonder if an illegal one amid the expanding trash piles that line our forest thoroughfares is properly extinguished.

Accidentally starting a wildfire, like every other ignorant act, is something that always happens to the other guy. As our country dries to a crisp I think about how many “other guys” are playing Russian roulette with the future of our national forests by disregarding campfire etiquette.

I’ll be long gone before the land that encompasses the Hayman fire burn area and the new ones in Arizona ever recover. Those are places I’ll never be able to take my grandchildren to enjoy the beauty of nature. We enjoy Buffalo Creek and many other Colorado campgrounds now, but wonder how long they will stay viable and how soon it may be that we experience an epic fire again. My wife and I are doing what we can by limiting fires, burning only in designated fire rings, and ensuring the fire is out, completely, before abandoning it. By taking such actions I’d like to think I’m in the overwhelming majority, but I don’t have a good feeling about that.

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