Matchsticks. Row upon row of charred matchsticks. Each curve of the road reveals another charred mountainside with yet more burnt trees. In the light of the full moon, the landscape reminds me of another planet, a very barren planet, or even the moon itself. What should be dense stands of evergreen trees are now just desolate hllsides denuded of life. And it’s never ending.
I quickly realize that in the not so distant past, a horrific, large, hot wildfire burned through this idyllic canyon. This canyon of green grasses, a meandering river with moonlight glinting off the water. That there was a wildfire here does not surprise me — it’s Colorado, we live in the a wildfire zone — I’ve been evacuated due to fires burning near me.
But the size and scope of this fire is what truly astounds me. We continue to drive this scenic byway, mile after miles, tens of miles, and yet the charred landscape appears after every bend. I see mountains in the distance, they too are barren of vegetation. More matchsticks.
The Heyman Fire that burned for almost a month in June, 2002 was notable for many reasons. At 138,000 acres, it is still the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history. At the time it was the most destructive, burning down 138 homes, and most costly, at over 40 million dollars. The Black Forest Fire of 2013 turned out to far more destructive, destroying over 500 homes in it wake.
What I remembered more about the Heyman Fire than its cost was the news reports of how it was started — by a U.S. Forest Employee. Rumors circulated for year about what exactly had caused her to start the fire. An emotional letter from her ex-husband that she burned. Others said she started the fire intentionally so she could play the hero and put the fire out. Nobody really knows the truth I suppose but her..
Terry Barton has served her sentence for arson, and continues to perform community service. She still owes over 44 million dollars in restitution to more than a 1000 victims of the fire she started in a campfire ring near Lake George. Of course, paying at a rate of $75 she will never pay her debt back, but I imagine the burden of guilt she carries every day is more than enough.
I’ve often read that the first signs of life to appear after a wildfire are the wildlife that return after a fire. Wildlife biologists have documented Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep returning to burned areas within three days of after a fire. I’m reminded of this fact, driving through this canyon as I glimpse something dark standing beside the side of the road — a black bear. He lumbers along the side of the road, then ever so slowly pads out onto the pavement, glancing back at us for just a moment. He continues on, quietly going over the embankment down to the creek below, perhaps to nibble on the wildflowers blooming there. Yes, there is life after a fire.