Fire retardant impedes probe
SILVERTHORNE – Federal investigators have not determined the cause of the small forest fire near Silverthorne Aug. 16. – and they are not certain they will.
The fire retardant, which was successful in helping extinguish the fire, also covered important clues.
A fire was spotted on the hillside between Dillon Dam Road and Interstate 70, just west and above the Blue River ballfields in Silverthorne, shortly after 4:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16. The fire forced the temporary closure of the Dillon Dam Road, and county and federal fire crews worked together to control the fire.
No one was injured in the blaze, which was mostly contained by 8 p.m. Firefighters stayed through the night and into the next afternoon looking for hot spots.
A man and a woman, who had been camping in the area, were initially suspected and detained for questioning during the fire. They were later released.
“It became apparent that they probably didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Tom Healy, law enforcement officer with the White River National Forest, adding the couple was helpful in the investigation.
“They gave us some pretty good information, which matched with some of the physical indicators I found on the ground,” he said.
When investigating the cause of a fire, Healy said, he looks for clues on the ground. Burn patterns – soot stains on rocks and scars on vegetation – tell him where a fire started and in which direction it burned. He has narrowed the area of origin to approximately 1,000 square feet.
“But that’s a fairly large area,” he said. “Normally, we get down to 5-by-5 feet. The slurry pretty much wiped everything out.”
Fire officials called for a slurry bomber from Grand Junction Air Center to help extinguish the fire, which was burning down the hill toward power lines, which serve the town of Silverthorne.
Normally, slurry is used for larger fires (this one burned approximately 2 acres) and is dropped on the fire’s perimeter, Healy said. But the four loads of fire retardant used on the Aug. 16 fire covered most of the burned area.
“Pretty much the entire fire was red,” Healy said, referring to the red fire retardant. “They hit (the fire) on four different passes, so they pretty much dropped slurry on the entire fire.”
As a result, Healy is having a difficult time finding the clues he needs to determine the fire’s origin.
“Officially, the cause is undetermined,” he said, adding that he hasn’t closed the investigation yet.
“There’s a couple of other people I’d like to talk to that had a tent there,” Healy said, adding they are not necessarily suspects. “But I haven’t been able to find them.”
Healy said he’s fairly certain the fire was caused by a campfire from the previous night, which wasn’t extinguished.
People often believe a campfire is out, but the coals are still burning, he said.
“Oftentimes, fires rekindle days after somebody’s had them,” Healy said. “The best bet is lots of water and stirring all those coals. (But) right now, it’s moot since you can’t have a campfire.”
There has been a statewide ban of campfires since earlier this summer. Anyone found with an illegal campfire will be fined. A state law passed recently holds people liable for up to triple the damage caused by a fire they started, Healy said.
Federal agencies – the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Parks Service – have been instructed to send violators to federal court, he said. There’s a maximum penalty of $5,000 and/or six months in jail for violating the fire ban.
Despite some recent rains in the state, Healy said it’s unlikely the fire ban will be lifted anytime soon.
“Typically, the fall can almost be like a second fire season,” he said, explaining that once the frost has killed the vegetation, “we have a lot of dead fuel on the ground. That is a potentially high fire hazard.
“We could very well see (forest) fires burning and have fire restrictions until we see snow on the ground.”
Lu Snyder can be reached at 970-668-3998 ext. 203 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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