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The Hayman Fire

Horrible, no? Now look at Boulder Canyon...

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 12, 2002.

In the old days, Native Americans used to light the forests and prairie. They did so with the full intention of burning hundreds, maybe thousands of square miles of old growth timber or six-foot tall grass so that, in the spring, new fields could be planted or new grass would grow green quicker and their ponies could fatten up for the summer hunts.

Since most plains tribes only had the horse for a century or so before the reservations beckoned, their particular attitude towards fire and environment may have been left over from their more agricultural days when they cleared land for crops. It doesn’t matter, for my purpose, other than to point out that hundreds of thousands of people in North America set their world up in flame every so often. There was nothing, absent rain and wide rivers to stop it, and some of these conflagrations, which could roar across Kansas in their forty knot winds and five hundred miles of brown flora, must have wrought havoc on those downwind, man and animal. At night, even in the nineteenth century, these prairie fires were described as spectacular and terrifying.

It is yet another arrow in the quiver of those who snicker at the portrayal of the American Indian as Eco Man, for as now been suggested, the New World may have already been terra-formed by the time Europeans stopped by in number, and if a few of the neighbors got turned into munchies for the surviving coyotes, so much the better come hunting season.

I doubt anybody sitting on their suitcase on the porch outside their home southwest of Denver is particularly charmed by this topic. There are things that can be articulated and hypothesized about when there is no emotional trigger – like destruction of your home, desecration of your neighborhood forest, or imminent death – but nothing to calibrate your senses to what is important and what isn’t. Those who have not been confronted by a wall of flame advancing towards them by the medium of exploding tree tops at a speed at which a man can run ought not judge the decision making of those who have.

The Hayman Fire has burned so hot and so fast that authorities ceased putting anyone near its front lines on Monday. That is a scary revelation, because if the wind Monday night had been from the West and in the twenty mile an hour range – not unusual hereabouts - parts of Greater Denver might be aflame today.

I touch on this because I’d like to direct your attention again to Boulder Canyon, resident to the greatest flood risk in the United States and long overdue for it. Whether that’s true or not is probably still hypothesis; that it is a huge fire danger is clear. If fire started in narrow Boulder Canyon and breached the road to burn on both sides and there was the common wind from the west, the city of Boulder has a blowtorch pointed at it. It would be a three sided convection oven cooking anything on the Canyon road. I can’t envision where fire lines could be built, or how people could access such locations in anything approaching safety. Look at all the dead beetle kill from the 1970’s up that canyon. Feel how dry it is this year. Even broken by the cliffs, in the right conditions and wind it could happen. And there are many smaller west to east canyons lined with dry trees.

Look at the videos of the Hayman Fire. That horror is consuming five hundred acres every hour. It will destroy well over one hundred thousand acres when done, maybe a quarter million. There’s not enough water to stop it, actually. It will have to fizzle out on its own.

It’s only one of eight in Colorado.

All Boulder is missing to surpass this catastrophe is some doped-out kid starting a campfire, or setting off fireworks, or some idiot absently tossing a cigarette down and halfheartedly grinding it out. Or lightening. Or a piece of glass in the sun.

Unlike the Native Americans, we are, at least, encouraged to care who and what is downstream and downwind. Can you imagine approaching the Rockies from the East and one night seeing a forest fire descend some peak and the next day realize it was now a prairie fire with a wide front heading for you and that you could not outrun it? For whatever reason, I think I can imagine it, and bet it is a sensation not unlike those hosted by nervous folks, sitting on their suitcases in the mountains west of Denver, hoping the car will start up fine if need be.