Boulder Fourmile Canyon fire cause: Was a resident's fire pit really to blame for blaze?

Update:A few short hours ago, Boulder County Sheriff's Office spokesman Commander Rick Brough declined to comment about reports that the Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder had been caused by an improperly extinguished fire pit. Now, however, the BCSO has put out a release confirming just that.

The property owner in question has still not been named in the new info below, which is followed by the original item published under this headline:

Fourmile Canyon Fire Investigation

On September 6, 2010 at approximately 10:00 a.m., the Boulder County Communications Center received a radio call of a fire in the 7100 block of Fourmile Canyon. The wind driven fire quickly spread, eventually consuming an estimated 6400 acres of land and approximately 166 residences. The investigation into the cause and origin of the fire was initiated as soon as investigators could safely enter the area where the fire originated.

The investigation has led investigators to believe that the origin of the fire was most likely a fire pit in the 7100 block of Fourmile Canyon. Information indicated the last fire in the fire pit, prior to the Fourmile Canyon Fire had been a number of days before. At that time, the property owner had made attempts to extinguish the fire by dousing it with water and stirring the ashes. It is believed that the wind reignited the embers and blew them out of the fire pit, causing the fire to spread on September 6th.

The investigation is continuing and at this time it is unknown if criminal charges will be pursued. For criminal charges to be pursued, the responsible person would have had to act in a reckless or criminally negligent manner. The definitions for criminal negligence or reckless behavior as defined in the Colorado Revised Statues is as follows:

"Criminal negligence": a person acts with criminal negligence when, through a gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or a circumstance exists.

"Recklessly": a person acts recklessly when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.

The property owner is a life long member of the community and the Sheriff's Office does not feel he is a danger to the public. The investigation will continue and at this time, the Sheriff's Office isn't prepared to answer whether or not any criminal charges will be pursued in this matter. The Sheriff's Office will work closely with the Boulder County District Attorney's Office prior to making any arrest decisions.

Original item, published 9:43 a.m. on September 13:

As Boulder's Fourmile Canyon fire appears to be winding down, focus will inevitably shift to its cause.

While weekend reports suggested that a fire pit may have caused the spark that lit the blaze, authorities are not ready to confirm it.

On Sunday, the Denver Post gave front-page play to a story asserting that the fire didn't get its start from an accident involving a propane tank -- the most prominent theory as of last week. Instead, the paper cited an anonymous senior law enforcement source who said authorities were now focusing their investigation on a resident of the area whose fire pit may not have been properly extinguished.

If that's the case, the Post notes, the resident in question could be charged with fourth-degree arson -- a felony count if people are determined to have been endangered, a misdemeanor if the only threat was against property.

At this point, Boulder County Sheriff's Office spokesman Commander Rick Brough isn't commenting on this prospect because "the investigation is still open." Neither will he say that the propane-tank accident has been formally ruled out as a cause -- although he comes closer.

"At one of the news conferences, the sheriff [Joe Pelle] said radio traffic indicated that a vehicle had backed into a propane tank," Brough notes. "And I later confirmed that the sheriff had said that. But I also said that you can't always rely on radio traffic. So that's why we want to continue with our investigation."

If this inquiry winds up providing evidence against a specific resident, the fallout could rival that involving Terry Lynn Barton, a 2002 Westword Hall of Shame inductee, a U.S. Forest Service employee pilloried for her role in the Hayman fire, linked to her burning of a love letter from her ex-husband.

The Hayman fire destroyed more acreage, but the Fourmile Canyon fire destroyed over thirty more homes. There's no denying that's the pits.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts