Investigators rule that Willits fire was an arson
Investigators determined Saturday that a fire that charred 1.5 acres of land in the Willits area Friday evening was deliberately set, according to Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.
“This was an arson fire,” he said. There was a single point of origin near the intersection of Willits Lane and Evans Road in a wooded area along the Willits Lane bike path, according to Thompson. He said the Colorado Bureau of Investigation sent an investigator to the scene Saturday at the request of the Basalt Police Department.
“The worst part is one of our firefighters was severely hurt,” Thompson said.
A volunteer firefighter was burned by hot water and steam on his hands, inner arms, torso and abdomen when a hose ruptured during the firefighting effort, said Richard Cornelius, division chief with the Fire Department. The firefighter received second-degree burns. He was treated at Valley View Hospital and released Saturday morning.
The fire truck that was involved in the incident has been taken out of service pending an internal investigation, Thompson said.
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Construction firm helps out
The fire was reported at about 6:15 p.m. Friday in an area that’s heavily wooded with what Thompson called decadent, old cottonwood trees and other brush. The area also is used as staging for construction on nearby condominiums.
The first Basalt firefighting unit arrived four minutes after getting the call. Mutual aid was immediately requested from the fire departments of Snowmass Village, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs as well as the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management. Thompson said the intensity of the fire and the potential for it to spread concerned Basalt firefighters.
Flames leapt higher than 50 feet in the air and burned a construction shed. Hughes Excavation, which is using the area for staging, used heavy equipment to create a fire line on the easterly end of the site, said Cornelius, one of the first responders to the blaze. A ditch served as a firebreak on the southern end. Hughes also used an excavator to pull down burning trees so firefighters could douse the flames, Cornelius said.
A shed used to store construction materials was burned in the fire.
Hawks accounted for
A red-tail hawk had a nest with young birds in that area. The tree had to be taken down after it caught fire, Thompson said. People have reported seeing the young birds after the incident, he said.
Cornelius said the nest might have landed in the irrigation ditch running adjacent to the bike path, though that wasn’t confirmed, he said.
The site also has multi-resident housing to the north and a self-storage facility to the south. There was no immediate danger to any other structure, the firefighters said.
Cornelius said it was fortunate that the red-flag fire conditions, which include winds, weren’t a factor Friday. A red-flag warning was in effect for the Roaring Fork Valley on Saturday.
Thompson noted there was a breeze Friday evening that pushed smoke and soot toward Willits Town Center, El Jebel Highway 82 and Basalt Mountain. The smoke triggered fire alarms in some residences in the area, Cornelius said.
Firefighters used chainsaws extensively to cut up the burned and downed timber on the private property. “It’s a mess,” Thompson said.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials are investigating the fire. “Somebody knows who started this fire,” Thompson said.
Anyone with information is asked to call Basalt Police Department at 970-927-4316.
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U.S. Forest Service officials in the Roaring Fork Valley say prescribed burns must play a bigger role in public land management.