USFS special agent provides look inside wildfire investigations

A fire retardant aircraft flies over the wildland fire in the Wildernest neighborhood Tuesday, June 12, near Silverthorne.
Photo by Hugh Carey / Summit Daily archives

Firefighters and other emergency workers, along with residents and visitors to the county, have been enjoying a fire free season in Summit so far this year.

It wasn’t too long ago that crews were lined up along firebreaks just outside Silverthorne to combat the Buffalo Mountain Fire, hoping to stop the blaze before it burned its way through the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods. A year earlier in 2017, helicopters were flying over Breckenridge and dumping buckets of water to halt the advance of the Peak 2 Fire as it made its way up the mountain.

Thousands of structures were threatened, and relatively widespread evacuations were ordered in Silverthorne and Breckenridge as a result of the fires. But more than a year since the last flames were doused, officials still aren’t sure how exactly the fires started, or by who.

According to Bill Jackson, a district ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, both the Peak 2 Fire and the Buffalo Mountain Fire were likely human caused — as other possibilities such as lighting, machinery and electric lines were ruled out — though no parties have been found responsible for either.

In October last year, the special agent investigating the Peak 2 Fire recommended the case be closed due to all investigative leads being exhausted, though it can be reopened if new leads emerge. The investigation is still open for the Buffalo Mountain Fire, though finding the individuals responsible for starting wildfires is often difficult, even with expert investigators, according to officials.

“Every fire is so unique that it’s very common for us to determine the cause and the origin area, but it’s more difficult to find that person responsible,” said special agent Travis Lunders, an investigator with the U.S. Forest Service.

Lunders said that local fire districts will call in the help of a forest service investigator anytime a fire is determined to be human caused, or when a cause can’t be easily established. Once called into action, investigators begin tracking down leads even before the fire has been put out, searching for witnesses who may be able to help identify a suspect.

“There are a lot of steps that can be taken, and a lot of the investigation that can be conducted even if the fire is still too hot and you can’t get into the origin area,” said Lunders. “Investigators responding to a fire will get things like weather information from dispatch, work with law enforcement to see if there are any witnesses in the area or anybody who called 911, and we’ll start creating that call list of people we should reach out to.

“If we’re fortunate enough to have the fire start near a large municipality there’s things like traffic cameras and other things we can look at to determine who’s coming and going at the time the fire was started. So there’s a lot of work an investigator can do in preparing for the overall investigation while they’re waiting for it to be safe.”

Once the fire dies down, and its safe for an investigator to enter the area, the search for the fire’s origin area begins. Lunders said the initial search is largely informed by recent weather patterns and the area’s topography — fires typically burn uphill, though directions can change dramatically due to winds, or chutes and valleys in the topography that can influence its direction. With an understanding of recent weather, topography, and unique burn marks left as the fire burned through vegetation — supplemented with information from witnesses and first responders — investigators can determine the intensity and direction that a fire was burning, hopefully back to the point of origin.

Once the general origin area has been determined, Lunders said the investigation begins to slow down as investigators try and work backwards to the point of ignition. Investigators will do a walk-around of the area looking for macro-indicators like burn patterns high in the surrounding trees to help narrow the scope of the search. Investigators will then turn to micro-indicators, such as small rocks that may be charred on one side and not the other, which may provide more insight into the ignition location.

From there, investigators will begin a detailed search for the ignition source. Lunders said investigators will grid the area — sometimes quite large, or as small as a 1-by-1-foot square — and get down on their hands and knees to pick through debris looking for clues to how the fire started, what Lunders called the “proverbial match.”

Lunders said that when fires start they’re typically not burning very hot — unless an accelerant was used — meaning when it moves out in one direction evidence can often be recovered.

Investigators will look through debris with a magnifying glass for things like charred cigarette butts or matches, and use a large magnet to sift out any mechanical parts left behind from equipment or a vehicle.

“It really comes down to having that trained eye, and having an affinity for very detailed examinations of what’s left behind,” said Lunders. “There’s no substitute for an experienced investigator who has that eye.”

But the labor-intensive work can be worthwhile. Lunders said identifying how a fire started can go a long way in finding a responsible party. For example, if the fire was determined to be ignited by a vehicle or a piece of equipment at the site, investigators can identify contractors who were working in the area or use traffic cameras to spot cars leaving the area when the fire started.

“It’s a lot of work, but often times we’re able to identify the origin area or the cause,” said Lunders. “Finding the person responsible is the real challenging part if we don’t have equipment used, or we don’t know who was in that particular area.”

But frequently the investigation relies on post-fire interviews with witnesses — often pulling in local law enforcement for assistance — to try and establish a firm timeline of the blaze, and try and identify potential suspects in the area at the time.

Lunders said that each fire is unique, and leads investigators down different paths for investigations that can sometimes last years until there are no more leads to follow. He says that for investigators, any tip could potentially be the one that leads to the responsible party, and said residents in the area shouldn’t be afraid to speak out if they’re a witness to a wildfire.

“The forest is a huge area,” said Lunders. “And there’s way more citizens that go out and recreate than we have. So I’d encourage them, if they have information or if they see a person or a vehicle, to never discount that information. Law enforcement finds that useful, and they should report it. We rely on the citizenry to be our eyes and ears in a lot of cases.”

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