Boulder Fourmile Canyon firestarter: DA Stan Garnett thinks criminal charges could be tricky

Although the Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder is 100 percent contained, the identity of the local resident suspected of accidentally starting it hasn't been made public yet.

However, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office is sending signals that criminal charges are no cinch, and Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett does likewise.

A BCSO release points out that the pit had last been used "several days before," adding, "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."

Moreover, the property owner -- identified as a longtime firefighter -- was not taken into custody, due to the presumption that he isn't "a danger to the public." The BCSO stresses that it "it is unknown if criminal charges will be pursued," and takes pains in the release to offer multiple definitions of arson that may not fit the circumstances of this case.

Yesterday morning, BCSO spokesman Commander Rick Brough told Westword his office couldn't comment on press reports about a fire pit causing Fourmile because the investigation was ongoing. Mere hours later, the office put out its release confirming just that. Thus far today, Brough hasn't responded to multiple interview requests; if and when he does so, we'll share his comments at The Latest Word.

As for Garnett, who's in Pueblo at this writing, he says, "I just talked to the sheriff, and he thinks the investigation will probably be done sometime tomorrow. At that point, he'll send us all the investigative documents" and the DA's office can work toward reaching its own conclusions.

In the meantime, Garnett notes that fourth-degree arson -- the most minor arson count -- states that individuals can be charged if they "knowingly or recklessly" start or maintain a fire or cause an explosion that risks causing serious bodily injury or damaging a structure.

"We'll look at all the conduct as indicated to determine whether the evidence would be able to establish one of the requisite mental states, and also look at other issues," he notes. But "determining criminal behavior, punishment and restitution -- those kinds of issues can be somewhat more complicated in a low-level case like this."

Moreover, Garnett points out that in this instance, there's a very real possibility of what he refers to as "civil consequences."

Does that lawsuits might be better tools than criminal charges for this particular firefighter? Garnett says simply that his office will "go through the evidence carefully and make a decision." But his response and the press statement quoted above offer many opportunities for reading between the lines.

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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