Report shows Buffalo Mountain Fire likely caused by campfire
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the date the Buffalo Mountain Fire started.
FRISCO — Officials have determined that an out-of-control campfire likely caused the Buffalo Mountain Fire, according to a U.S. Forest Service investigative report.
While the report notes that the case is still technically unsolved, the investigation was able to definitively exclude a number of possible causes and listed a campfire as the probable culprit.
The Buffalo Mountain Fire was first reported at about 10:35 a.m. on June 12, 2018, and burned through 91 acres above the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods near Silverthorne in the subsequent days. The fire cost more than $2.1 million to suppress, according to the report.
Forest Service law enforcement officers began the investigation into the cause and origin of the fire on June 14. Using photographs of the fire outline, the officers determined the fire’s heel — or back — was in the northwest corner of the fire.
They hiked their way up and began to look for indicators in the burned vegetation and slurry that would point them to the origin, and marked them with colored flags. The path eventually led the officers to a campfire ring made of rocks.
The fire ring was filled only with white ash and no unconsumed fuel. The report notes that investigators discovered several other rock fire rings in the area, which all had bits of unburned pinecones or sticks that fell from trees above the unused fire rings.
Investigators identified the site as the specific origin area, and went to work taking photographs and searching the area for a specific source of ignition. No camping gear was located near the fire ring, and only a metal bottle cap was discovered.
The report also notes that it’s possible an incendiary — like matches, cigarette lighters or fireworks — started the fire. But investigators determined it was very unlikely given the area’s distance from the road and the lack of any incendiary-type evidence.
“We’ve been confident all along that the fire was human caused mainly because we could rule out other sources of ignition,” said Steve Lipsher, a spokesperson for Summit Fire & EMS. “There was no lightning or malfunctioning power lines and no reason to believe there were any natural processes that started the fire. That leaves us with humans.”
While officers weren’t able to pinpoint precisely who caused the fire, the investigation did return a few leads.
One officer spotted a woman she knew from previous contacts and to whom she’d issued prior summons for illegally residing near the top of the Wildernest area. The investigator notes in the report the camper wasn’t known to have used campfires in the past.
Officials searched the woman’s unoccupied camp about 600 yards from the suspected fire origin and 50 yards from the edge of the burned area. They found an unburned Roman candle firework, but there was no campfire and no signs that the fire started from her camp.
In a subsequent interview, the woman told investigators that she first found out about the fire after she got off the bus around 10:30 that morning and wasn’t in the area where it started. Investigators confirmed the story with video footage from the Summit Stage.
The woman also told the officers that the firework was given to her by another camper, whom officers knew to be a man who frequently resided illegally on Forest Service lands. Investigators were not able to make contact with the man.
Investigators later returned to the woman’s camp and found a small pile of grass, kindling and flammable materials had been lit on fire. The materials were collected as evidence, but it wasn’t determined why or by whom it was ignited.
“Campfires are always a concern for us living on the edges of the wild forest,” Lipsher said. “We know there are a lot of people that come up to Summit to camp and who illegally squat in the forest as well. But between people who are doing it legally and as a means of housing, anytime you have a campfire up there, you have the potential for the fire to spread.
“This summer, we’ve had a blanket prohibition on backcountry campfires, thanks to the White River National Forest. I think that has been a factor in reducing the number of fires we’ve been called to. But every year, we do get reports of illegal campfires, unattended campfires and abandoned campfires. It’s one of our primary problems.”
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