Breck trio narrowly escapes Hayman fire |

Breck trio narrowly escapes Hayman fire

by Jane Stebbins

BRECKENRIDGE – It will be a long time before Michael Willis and Whit and Kasia Smith venture into the woods again.

“At least until the fire ban is over,” Willis said. “That could be November.”

The Breckenridge trio and four friends from Denver – Rich and Paula Sellers, Todd Robinson and Rebekeh Hong – set out on a three-day camping trip May 31, hoping to complete a 20-mile loop to Lost Creek in the Pike National Forest. Two days later, the group encountered another hiker who told them there was a fire in the area.

“He didn’t know where it was coming from, he didn’t know where it was,” Whit said. “He just said there was a fire.”

The conflagration, which eventually would consume more than 103,000 acres, was the Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado history.

The group packed up and trekked southwest, to the highest point of their trip, at 11,600 feet. From there, they could see smoke roiling in the sky.

“That’s when everyone started getting emotional,” Kasia said. “It was shocking. It was unreal – it was surreal.”

To return to their vehicle, parked at the trailhead seven miles away, they would have to head directly toward the fire.

Their location was difficult to pinpoint on a topo map, and “it’s not really an area you can bushwhack,” Whit said. “It’s pretty much stay on the trail or you’re not going anywhere. We had to go with our instincts: Run.”

They began heading back.

Periodically, they tried their cell phones, none of which worked in the remote canyon. Willis, suffering from tendinitis in his knee and serious blisters on his heels, was falling behind. They debated leaving their packs, but didn’t know if they’d be stuck in the woods for several days and need them.

Whit tired of the debate and left the group to scout the trail. He ultimately planned to dump his backpack and get a gallon of water and a fresh pair of shoes for Willis.

Tempers flared among those he left behind.

“I was a little disappointed in Whit,” Kasia said of her husband. “I didn’t know if he had made it to the truck, if he’d gotten hurt, if he was on fire. Not knowing made everyone break down.”

Whit reached the truck unhurt. But the woods around him were popping and smoke was billowing.

“That’s when I saw the helicopters,” Whit said. “There were three or four of them, with people leaning out and looking for us. (The group had signed a register at the trailhead before setting out.) The fire was about a mile away, and hundreds of feet tall. I remember seeing spruce trees about 100 feet tall, and fire about four or five times higher. And the wind was howling. It looked like Hell on Earth.”

The remaining hikers – who now included a man named Dave and his two dogs – continued along the path toward the car. It was Kasia’s understanding they were to wait for Whit at a fork in the trail. Once there, they found Whit had left an arrow fashioned of wood, pointing east. After almost three hours at the fork, they decided they couldn’t wait for Whit any longer and headed that way.

They were about a mile down the trail when Whit met them as he headed back into the woods. His goal was to get to Willis and outfit him with more comfortable shoes.

Fear began to set in, Kasia said. Whit told them to run, that he’d catch up and bring Willis, who was behind again. Kasia said she wasn’t leaving without Whit.

The eight hikers – and their three dogs – eventually reached the trailhead parking lot. Dave tried to leave in his truck, but was forced back by the fire. Helicopters hovered overhead, eventually locating a landing place in the narrow canyon. Pilots made four trips to the trailhead to evacuate the group members.

It wasn’t until June 16 they learned the cause of the fire: A Forest Service ranger burned a letter she’d received from her estranged husband. Feelings about her actions are mixed.

“I’m mad; she knew better,” Willis said. “She put all seven of our lives at risk.”

“I can’t even direct any anger or hate at her,” Whit said. “She has so much coming her way.”

The three are grateful for the firefighters’ actions.

“They risked their lives to save ours,” Kasia said. “They never stopped looking for us. I hope they’re safe. It was scary for all of us.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or

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