No charges in Colorado’s most destructive wildfire
September 22, 2010
BOULDER, Colo. – Prosecutors said Wednesday they won’t file criminal charges against the volunteer firefighter whose fire pit is believed to have started the most destructive blaze in Colorado’s history.
Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett said the applicable charge would be fourth-degree arson, but he didn’t think prosecutors could prove the necessary element that the firefighter knowingly started the fire or acted recklessly.
County sheriff’s investigators have said they believe the wildfire originated Sept. 6 from a fire pit at the firefighter’s home. The blaze in the canyons west of Boulder scorched about 6,200 acres, or nearly 10 square miles. It destroyed at least 166 homes and caused an estimated $217 million in damage, making it the most destructive wildfire in state history.
Garnett’s office said the decision not to file charges against the firefighter or anyone else was made after a “thorough tour of the fire scene” and discussions with the sheriff’s office.
The U.S. Forest Service conducted its own investigation and will issue a report, Garnett said. But prosecutors said it “is not expected that these reports will provide significantly different evidence than that which has already been presented.”
Garnett said the firefighter had been burning brush and other materials from his property Sept. 2, when no fire ban was in place. He said the firefighter thought he had extinguished the fire with water and by stirring the ashes.
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The sheriff’s office said it’s likely that winds reignited embers from the fire pit, and the blaze quickly spread.
“Whether it came from the embers or not, we’d have a hard time proving that that’s how it started,” Garnett said. He said the firefighter reported the blaze and was among those who lost their homes.
Garnett said the firefighter helped fight the wildfire, has cooperated with the investigation and is “devastated by what happened.”
“It was a difficult couple of weeks for him,” Garnett said.
Before the fire, dubbed the Fourmile Canyon fire, Colorado’s most destructive fire was the 2002 Hayman fire southwest of Denver. It scorched 215 square miles and destroyed more than 130 homes, causing $46.1 million in property damage adjusted for inflation.
Former U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton served six years in prison after pleading guilty to starting the Hayman fire, which was caused by a letter she burned in a campground. The letter was from her estranged husband.
Garnett said he consulted with the attorneys who prosecuted Barton to get their opinion in the Boulder case. He said with the Hayman fire, there was a “much higher level intent with starting that fire than what we have here.”