Driving through the Hayman burn area, I think of the old Jim Reeves song: Today I burned your old love letters/Burned them gently one by one/Before I’d light the flame I’d read it/To try and find the wrong I’ve done.
It was a fire named for the mining ghost town of Hayman, but, unfortunately, there were more than 5,000 real people, not ghosts, forced to evacuate when it burned. The cause: arson.
A fire ranger said she’d been burning a letter from her estranged husband in a campfire ring when the blaze got out of control. Her story, later roundly disputed, gave a soap opera dimension to a blaze that was anything but fiction.
Today, in a national forest that is part of the 100,000-acre Hayman burn area, it looks as if the fire could have happened yesterday, not nearly 12 years ago. It’s a forest of stumps and skeletal, blackened pines, with little new growth visible.
I keep looking for young pines, or opportunist aspens, grasses or bushes, but the moonscape doesn’t offer much but dirt and rock and mile after mile of charred carcasses. Experts say that because of the Pike’s Peak granite in the soil, it may be a thousand years in some areas before there are trees or significant flora again.
The fire was lit June 8, 2002. For a month and 10 days firefighters from all over the West battled to stop it, but not before it became Colorado’s largest wildfire ever, causing one death, burning 133 homes and costing nearly $40 million to fight. Five firefighters died in a traffic accident en route to the Hayman fire from Oregon. Those deaths are a fatal footnote.
There are homes here again, most of them built in the past 14 years, with porches and decks that have grim views of barren hills. Two years ago, at the 10th anniversary of the fire, many residents in this area told reporters they remain bitter about how the forest fire started.
Forest ranger Terry Barton was convicted of setting the fire in a campfire ring during a total burn ban. She was sentenced to six years in federal prison and served five. She also was sentenced to community service, part of which she did incognito in the Hayman Fire burn area. She is paying millions she owes in state and federal restitution at the rate of $75 a month.
Authorities never found evidence to support Barton’s claim about a letter. Not that it mattered much why she struck a match. She admitted to starting the fire and lying to investigators. Once a plea arrangement was made, her motive made little difference to the prosecution.
That didn’t stop the public debate. Some think she might have wanted to be a hero, starting the fire just to put it out and say she saved a forest.
Either way, actions have consequences. The match she struck burned $40 million worth of private property, burned 138,000 acres in four counties, killed people and changed a landscape. It’s not something that can be undone – at least not for a thousand years.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.