Fresh wildfires scorching the Colorado High Country
The Freeman Fire, which was reported above the Ruedi Reservoir near Glenwood Springs Saturday afternoon, has grown to roughly 336 acres, said Kate Jerman, a spokeswoman for the White River National Forest. No evacuation or pre-evacuation notices have been ordered.
A crew of roughly 100 firefighters and three helicopters battled the blaze on Monday, which was whipped up by winds gusting up to 55 miles an hour on ridgelines. By Monday evening, the fire was 40 percent contained.
Crews on the western and southern lines had begun moving in from the perimeters for mop-up, dousing hot spots with water and dirt. Two hot-shot crews were busy cutting lines on the eastern flank in hopes of corralling the fire northward into a pinch point, said Jerman.
Meanwhile, residents of Beulah, a small town in Pueblo County that was evacuated earlier this month in advance of the 5,000-acre Beulah Hill Fire, were once again placed on a pre-evacuation notice. The Junkins Fire, which was reported early Monday morning east of Westcliffe, has roared to more than 13,300 acres, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, and has since crossed into Pueblo County.
Gail Perez, spokeswoman for the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office, said the cause of the fire, the latest to spring up in the state in recent weeks, is still unknown.
Jerman said that the Freeman fire is believed to be human-caused, and the Forest Service is asking for the public’s help in tracking down any leads. No suspects have been named.
Feds sometimes charge for accidents
Last week’s Frey Gulch Fire, however, which burned 22 acres above Dillon near the Summit County landfill, immediately had a suspect in 31-year-old Bryson Jones of Denver. He was reportedly at the nearby shooting range firing incendiary rounds — ammunition that creates a small explosion on impact — which authorities suspected started the fire.
Jones immediately took responsibility for the fire and was cited by the Summit County Sheriff’s Office for fourth-degree arson, a class-three misdemeanor. A federal investigation is still in progress, however, and Jones could still face fines and even possible jail time.
Dillon District Ranger Bill Jackson said on Monday that the investigation was ongoing, and that the decision to charge is based on a comprehensive history of the offense — including the suspected party’s record and background.
Use of incendiary rounds is prohibited on Forest Service land, carrying a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine for each count, along with restitution for the cost of fighting a wildfire. While the shooting range at which Bryson was firing the rounds is county, not Forest Service land, it quickly spread to White River National Forest, and incendiary rounds are prohibited at the range, as well.
In a typical year, about 90 percent of wildland fires are triggered by human activity, according to the National Park Service, and of those a very small percentage are deemed arson. But people who start wildfires can still be hit with arson charges — even in the case of an accident — if their behavior is deemed “grossly negligent.”
That was the case for the Cold Springs Fire, which burned up 528 acres near Nederland earlier this year. Two transients from Alabama, who were illegally camping near where the fire started, were arrested and charged with arson for allegedly failing to properly put out their campfire, which investigators said released the embers that ignited the blaze.
Perhaps the most famous case in Colorado, however, and one that some have said was a turning point of sorts for how fires, accidental or not, are charged, was the Hayman burn outside of Colorado Springs in 2002. That fire scorched more than 137,000 acres, 600 structures and claimed the lives of five firefighters.
Terry Barton, a Forest Service technician, admitted to starting the fire when she burned paper in a fire ring during a burn ban. It quickly grew into an inferno that cost the state more the $39 million to fight, and Barton was charged with four counts of felony arson. She pleaded guilty to setting fire to federal forestland and lying to investigators, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
By Monday evening, three helicopters were remaining on stand-by for the Freeman Fire after being grounded most of the day due to high winds. Winds were expected to drop of significantly the next day, with afternoon winds projected from the west at 15-20 miles per hour, said Jerman. She added that there was a slight chance of light precipitation over the fire site.
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