DECKERS, Colo. (CBS4) – Ten years after Colorado’s biggest wildfire, many Coloradans who lost homes or whose property was damaged remain in the same spot they were in before the fire started.
For most residents who live inside the Hayman burn area the landscape has completely changed. Many are living in new homes that replaced the ones that burned, and for some there remains a bitterness about how the fire started.
Terry Barton, a U.S. Forest Service employee, admitted she started the Hayman Fire, which broke out on June 9, 2002, and grew to more than 138,000 acres and burned across four different counties before firefighters finally got a handle on it. Barton served time in jail, but Douglas County residents like Tim Baysinger say it’s hard to let go of the bitterness they feel towards her.
“It’s an emotional sore point,” he said.
Baysinger figures the Hayman Fire cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in uninsured property losses. Much of his 160 acres was blackened by the fire.
“Am I bitter? Pretty much, because we’ll never get anything out of it and never see it — like it was — in my lifetime.”
Barton was convicted of arson, but a lawsuit for damages proved unsuccessful. The federal government was never held liable.
The Hayman fire destroyed 133 homes. Somewhat surprisingly, more than half of those homeowners have actually chosen to stay on their property and rebuild.
One of the first homes that went up in flames belonged to Dick and Lynn Ronk of Deckers. The couple got out of their home safely. Then, after the fire, they quickly returned and rebuilt. Although the majority of trees around the Ronks’ home are blackened or lying broken on the ground and they have to endure flash flooding that continues to this day in the burn area, the Ronks enjoy having old friends nearby.
They also say they find beauty in the blackened landscape.
“Phooey on the trees, I am not going to let them pull me down,” Lynn said.
Even with good insurance, the Ronks’ new house has meant a financial setback for the couple.
“It certainly didn’t cover everything. I did not expect to have a mortgage at this stage of my life,” Dick said.
If you ask the Ronks if they are bitter, though, they will tell you they are blessed.
“We are living life to the fullest,” said Lynn.
When it comes to Barton, the Ronks say they’ve forgiven the arsonist, whose story was that she was burning a letter from an estranged husband in a campfire ring and it got out of control (although many doubt the story).
“What she did was grossly stupid, but we don’t have any hard feelings towards her,” Dick said.
PHOTO GALLERY: Hayman Fire
Like with Baysinger and the Ronks, for Suzette Beiswenger, Hayman was a life altering event. Beiswenger lost all her possessions, everything except a fire scarred housecat called Ashes.
“They found her in a burned out trailer in the heater vent pipe,” Baysinger said.
Beiswenger was so defeated after the fire that she left the area for several years, but the self-described country girl couldn’t live in the city and decided to come back.
“It’s like taking a wild animal and putting them in a zoo,” she said of her big city experience.
The Hayman Fire caused nearly $40 million in firefighting costs and forced the evacuation of 5,340 people.
– Visit CBSDenver.com’s Wildfire Resources section.
– Read recent Wildfire stories.
Wildfire Photo Galleries