Pine Creek Cookhouse fire likely caused by leaking propane tank |

Pine Creek Cookhouse fire likely caused by leaking propane tank

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Leaking propane gas is the likely cause of an explosion and fire that destroyed the Pine Creek Cookhouse last Thursday, fire officials said on Wednesday.

But because of the complete destruction of the restaurant, the Aspen Fire Department will probably never know for certain what caused the blaze, said Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven.

“All indicators lead to the belief that there was some sort of explosion in the restaurant caused from gas leaking over a long period of time,” Van Walraven said. Propane investigators who visited the restaurant’s ruins came to the same conclusion, he said.

The restaurant had closed for the end of its winter season the previous Sunday. Van Walraven said if the restaurant had been open over those four days, either someone would have reported a smell of leaking gas, or the restaurant would have gotten enough cross-ventilation to dilute the gas.

Pine Creek Cookhouse owner John Wilcox said he never smelled gas at the restaurant, although the propane tanks emit a “typical gas smell” at the end of the season when they are empty.

“We did close down all of the tanks except on the one that still had gas in it,” he said. “But I know [the manager said] he hadn’t smelled any gas prior to the explosion.”

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Fire officials did interview three witnesses who saw the explosion in the cookhouse. Van Walraven said the restaurant’s manager had left the restaurant and was talking with someone when they saw the explosion rock the building, which immediately burst into flames.

There is no suspicion that the fire was intentionally set, Van Walraven said. It is estimated that the blaze resulted in $350,000 in damage.

Because the restaurant is located 12 miles up Castle Creek Road from Aspen, the structure was engulfed in flames by the time the volunteer fire department arrived in the area. And even so, the road ends one mile from the cookhouse in the winter, and fire engines could not reach the fire.

After sending firefighters up to the fire to make sure no other structures were threatened, the department let the fire burn itself out. Van Walraven said the fire had burned out by the next morning.

The fire department is also investigating a fire that destroyed the rear of a three-story duplex in Aspen on Saturday night. The fire at 515/517 Park Circle has left six residents homeless.

Van Walraven said insurance investigators were at the scene of the fire on Wednesday afternoon, and the fire department has ruled out any suspicious activity in connection to the blaze.

“We have the area of origin of the fire, but we don’t have a cause yet,” he said. “We’ve narrowed the cause down to two or three possible things.”

The possible cause won’t be released until the insurance investigators have completed their work, and even then the cause may not be 100 percent certain, he said.