May 4, 2003
In the wake of the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history (at least since humans started scientifically recording such events), the U.S. Forest Service continued extensive forest restoration efforts in the Hayman fire burn area. These efforts by USFS teams represent the largest single forest restoration operation in the agency’s history.
The Hayman fire ignited on June 8, 2002 southwest of the Denver metro area and north of Lake George, eventually burning parts of Park, Jefferson, Douglas and Teller Counties.
The fire was set by set by USFS employee Terry Lynn Barton. Before the blaze was controlled on July 18, 2003, the fire burned 137,760 acres and destroyed 600 structures. As of Feb. 20, 2002, fire and post-fire efforts cost $39.1 million.
The entire Hayman fire burn area remained closed for general recreation use until early May 2003, when the USFS opened selected roads and trails. Additional roads, trails and facilities were expected to be cleared for use in upcoming months, although the USFS urged visitors to be cautious.
Restoring the forest
According to the USFS, the burn area remained a dangerous place as burned trees in thousands of acres were expected to fall, loose rocks posed hazards with no vegetation to hold them in place, and mudslides and floods were possible due to hard rain. However, work was underway in late 2002 to stabilize soils and remove hazardous trees from the most heavily used areas. Rehabilitation work, including aerial seeding and mulching, was also conducted.
A USFS Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team began restoration work before the Hayman fire was actually brought under control. Consisting of hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists and other resource specialists, the Hayman BAER team designed a plan to stabilize soil and control water flow, minimize runoff, and protect both the ecosystem and watershed. Through aerial and ground operations, the BAER team sought to promptly re-establish ground cover burned in the fire as the 2002 summer/early autumn monsoon season approached.
Soils in high-intensity burn areas often become resistant to water, or hydrophobic, a condition which greatly increases flood and erosion potential. After breaking up the soil in these areas by raking, seed was planted in an effort to allow grass to grow and groundcover to return. By October 2002, raking (called scarification) and seeding of 13,800 acres had been completed. For seeding, an annual rye seed mix was used, designed to germinate quickly to provide ground cover, then die within a couple of years to allow native grasses to return.
A mixture (hydro-mulch) of recycled wood fiber, grass seed, water and a binding agent was applied to 1,500 acres along USFS roads and county and state highways to generate growth to reduce runoff, erosion and road damage. Culverts and stream crossings within the burn area were cleaned and reinforced, and other road-reconditioning measures were taken. Hydro-mulch was also applied by helicopter to 1,593 acres of heavily burned slopes.
An annual grass seed mix was applied to 19,835 acres within severe burn areas, while dry straw was dropped on over 7,700 previously seeded acres. Without any help from the BAER team, however, aspen seeds began sprouting soon after the fire.
Over the next three to five years, the Hayman Burned Area Restoration Team will engage in hazardous tree removal, campground refurbishment, fence replacement, restoration of recreation trails, roads analysis and reconditioning, analysis and restoration of threatened and endangered species habitats, fishery and wildlife habitat improvements, noxious weed treatments and reforestation.
Most of the burned trees not deemed marketable will be left where they are cut, to provide erosion control and wildlife habitat, especially for the endangered Preble’s jumping mouse.
Cones from ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees were collected and saplings from these cones will take about two years to reach a stage when they can be replanted. Generally, ponderosa pine can survive if 25 percent of the canopy is still green and the root system is not compromised. Douglas fir, on the other hand, can usually only survive a 50 percent burn.
The Hayman restoration team also completed environmental analysis and documentation, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, before long-term treatments within the burn area could begin. Following approval under NEPA, a timber salvage project for burned but marketable trees was proposed, a project made more urgent by the threat of bark beetle infestation degrading the trees.
Timber sales and salvage timber contracts will occur in both the Hayman and Schoonover burn areas. (The lightening-caused Schoonover fire occurred three miles southwest of Deckers, Colo. on May 21, 2002 and burned 3,860 acres.)
A 30-day public comment period on the USFS’ Environmental Assessment of its proposal to salvage harvest approximately 17,500 acres of the Pike National Forest to the north and west of Woodland Park burned by the Hayman fire ended April 28, 2003.
The goal of the timber sale is to remove dead but marketable timber out of severely burned areas along roads and in public/private land boundary areas. The timber will be sold to local mills before an insect infestation can occur. An additional benefit of the sale said the USFS will be to scarify the hydrophobic top layer of soil in the salvage area, letting water absorb into the soil and promoting new plant growth. The salvage operation would use only temporary roads and no new permanent roads were to be constructed. Roads used would be rehabilitated after the salvage operation.
In addition, the proposed salvage operation would be conducted in areas with slopes of less than 35 percent to reduce erosion, and would avoid areas where threatened, endangered and/or sensitive species might be impacted.