TOPICS > Science

Firestorm: Colorado Wildfires

June 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The Colorado fires: There are six in all, but the most severe is a massive one that has consumed 100,000 acres between Denver and Colorado Springs. Betty Ann Bowser has our update report.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The firefighters call the blaze flaky, squirrelly, erratic, and unpredictable. But today, for the second day in a row, they got a break.

STEVE NEMORE, Firefighter: It may hold today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What does that mean, really good progress?

STEVE NEMORE: Progress means it didn’t advance anymore. It stayed within the determined lines that they wanted– within the road system, or within the lines that we’ve built. That’s good progress. It doesn’t mean it’s controlled, it means it’s still staying within that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Cooler temperatures, increased humidity, and diminished wind conditions made it easier to fight the Hayman fire from the air. Slurry bombers dropped fire- retardant chemicals over the southern sector near Colorado Springs, (Rotors whirring) while at the northern end outside of Denver, helicopters gathered water from the Platt River in 1,000-gallon bags and dumped it on nearby hot spots, trying to bring the 140-square mile fire under control. On the ground, crews also made headway for the first time since an illegal campfire started the blaze last weekend.

All along the perimeter, firefighters made breaks. First they cleared the underbrush. Then they dug four-foot-wide trenches to try and keep the flames from jumping into another area of trees and underbrush. They did this to protect the timberland, but they were also trying to save people’s homes. This is what the largest wildfire in the history of Colorado is leaving behind as it inches its way toward the Denver suburbs: Thousands of acres of devastated forest land. More than 30 homes have also been destroyed. And because the Hayman fire is so hot, so difficult to fight, only 15% of the 100,000 burning acres are under control.

CHRIS JONES, Firefighter: It’s huge. I mean, that’s just a phenomenal amount of area. There’s wilderness area on one side of us, there’s no roads on that side. The urban interface, there’s houses built right into the forest, so that is going to make it more of a public-eye fire because they’re going to see… I mean, people are concerned about their houses, of course.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Should they be?

CHRIS JONES: Yeah. I… well, yeah. I would be concerned about my house. But everything that can be done for the houses is being done. I mean, we are doing what we can for the houses. And other than access, there are only two or three spots on this side of the fire, this division of the fire where we can even get across the river with the engines. So it’s just real… there is no access, really.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only is access a problem, so are two years of extreme drought in Colorado. John Masson is director of communications for Jefferson County, where thousands of homes are threatened.

JOHN MASSON, Community Director, Jefferson County: The governor has declared the entire state of Colorado a drought disaster area. It’s that serious. I used the example earlier, if you look at an ember index– and an ember index shows you the potential for a fire– if you took 100 match heads and lit them at the same time and threw them into the air, 100 of those would catch the forest floor on fire. That’s how dangerous it is.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: More than anything else, it is weather that has been driving the fire, something U.S. Forrest Service Chief Dale Bosworth says no one can control.

DALE BOSWORTH, Chief, U.S. Forest Service: When you have large fires, weather is about as important as anything. And what we normally… where we make our differences are when the weather cooperates. We got to wait until the weather conditions are in the right way, and then we do… we do what we can. Right now, we have some opportunities today. Looks like we’ll have some opportunities tomorrow, where we can start getting an anchor… an anchor point in place, start building a fire line up the flanks of the fire. There are not enough people in the country to come to just put it out if the weather does not cooperate.

SPOKESMAN: Good morning, sir.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: More than 1,000 firefighters have come to Colorado, with 1,000 more on the way– many from the western states: California, Oregon, Washington State, Idaho. They hit the ground running, setting up tent cities in minutes, ready to man the fire lines in hours. At dawn each day, they are briefed, and because the fire is so ferocious, there are constant reminders about safety.

SPOKESMAN: This team expects every single person, when they see a safety problem, to say something or do something about it immediately.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: 14-hour days are normal, and some of the firefighters are frustrated, because so far, the Hayman fire seems so out of control.

VICTOR HALEY, Firefighter: It’s way more intense than normal fires we have been on. It’s been growing exponentially, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. Usually, you can anchor it real quick, and you can start working on the side. This here, we don’t seem to be having very good anchor points yet, and until we do, it’s just going to keep growing.

HEALTHER DURHAM, Firefighter: This is probably the largest one I’ve been on. It’s extreme fire behavior, it’s in a situation where it creates its own weather. It jumps lines. It’s hard to contain.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: With temperatures in the low 90s predicted for the weekend, and increased wind gusts, residents living in the fire area are nervous.

RESIDENT: Can you give us a little more definitive idea of where the fire is on Crystal Peak or behind us?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of these people are among the thousands who’ve been evacuated. Each night, it’s standing room only as they’re briefed by the Forest Service and local officials.

BILL BRYANT, Section Chief, U.S. Forest Service: What we have done, we have anchored in this area, and then we flanked the fire. With this kind of fuel, these temperatures, the rates of spread that we had, we do not and cannot put people in harm’s way in front of the fire. We can’t do that. No one can do that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They listened with concern as the Forest Service’s Bill Bryant described the difficulties his teams are having reining in the fire.

BILL BRYANT: There’s interior islands that are still burning out, so our main tactical operation is still structural protection. That’s what we’re out there for, to protect the structures. (Applause)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Then they’re encouraged when Bryant tries to reassure them. It’s an emotional roller coaster. Retired missionaries John and Peg Merwin had to leave their home four days ago.

PEG MERWIN: The first night after being evacuated, I thought about other things, like wedding pictures I had forgotten, silverware that was my mother’s, and things like that, you know? And you can’t go back in. I cried when I left the house. I was driving our car, full, and he was driving our pickup, and I cried all the way to our friend’s house. It was a very horrible feeling.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And then there’s not knowing when, or how, it will all end.

PEG MERWIN: We just sit and watch the fire. We can actually see our area of Crystal Peak, and we just sit all day long and just watch.

JOHN MERWIN: And, as Peg said, we can see our area from there. And we’re just kind of taking it day by day.

PEG MERWIN: Just waiting.

JOHN MERWIN: Yeah, just waiting.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It could be a long wait. Officials concede it may be weeks before the Hayman fire is under control, and months before it’s completely put out in a fire season that doesn’t usually get rolling until August.