Colorado sheriff says no charges to be filed for escaped prescribed fire

Lower North Fork Fire downslope drawThe sheriff of Jefferson County Sheriff told a reporter that no criminal charges will be filed for the escaped prescribed fire southwest of Denver that burned 4,140 acres, and may have caused the death of three local residents at their homes. Sheriff Ted Mink said in an interview conducted by 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger:

We’re not saying that somebody should not be held accountable. All we’re saying is there’s no criminality that we have come up with.

The Sheriff’s office completed their own investigation of the escaped fire, but worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. This was a separate investigation from the one initiated by Governor John Hickenlooper’s office, which Wildfire Today covered on April 16, the day the report was released.

Here is an excerpt from an article at thedenverchannel.com:

“The reports confirm previous assumptions that a prescribed burn conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service caused the fire. Based on the review of all available documents and witness interviews, it was determined that the CSFS followed or exceeded the parameters set by the Lower North Fork burn plan, and that no criminal violation of the Colorado Revised Statutes occurred,” the Sheriff’s Office report said.

However, a report by the governor’s office, released on Monday, showed that the state forest service violated its own burn plan by not patrolling the area of the controlled burn on that third day — Sunday — the day before the controlled burn blew up into the Lower North Fork Fire.

“How can the Forest Service follow and exceed the burn plan and violate it at the same time?” Zelinger asked.

“All I know is they did not go out there on a Sunday,” Mink replied. “The burn plan says periodic monitoring, and it doesn’t give a prescribed day or time or day or whatever the case is. You can interpret it in different ways. We interpreted it that they did follow and exceed it in the criminal part of our investigation.”

The Sheriff is wrong when he said: “The burn plan says periodic monitoring, and it doesn’t give a prescribed day or time or day…” The plan, according to page 50 of the report, states: “The fire will be directly patrolled and monitored for a minimum of 3 days following the initial burn, and then until significant moisture is received or the fire is declared out.”

The fire was not patrolled or checked on March 25, the third day after ignition of the prescribed fire. On that day at 12:15 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for the following day, March 26, the day the fire escaped, for strong winds and low relative humidity. The Colorado Forest Service (CFS) was aware of the Warning and decided that since the fire had been mopped up within 200 feet of the line that it did not need to be checked on the third day, March 25.

On March 26, the CFS planned to check the fire and if there were no new smokes within 200 feet of the control line, they would remove all of the water handling equipment, including the hose lays, portable pump, and a portable water tank. At 5:51 a.m. that day, the NWS issued an updated Red Flag Warning for low humidity and strong winds of “8-13 mph with gusts to 25 mph, increasing to 22-32 mph with gusts to 60 mph in the afternoon”. In spite of that forecast, the CFS stuck with their plan of checking the fire with three people, using a pickup truck instead of a fire engine, and they would remove the water handling equipment.

The report stated that the failure to patrol the fire on the third day did not contribute to the escape on the fourth day, concluding that the strong winds blew burning embers from unburned sections of the fire into and possibly across the 200-foot mopped up area, re-igniting some portions of the blackened area, and ultimately starting at least three spot fires across the line, one of which could not be controlled. It stated that some of the factors contributing to the escape of the fire included:

  • Strong winds on March 26.
  • Unburned fuels within the burn unit.
  • Residual heat remaining within the burn unit.
  • Mopping up only 200 feet from the fire line during the wind event.
  • The 3-person crew working on the fire on March 26 using a pickup truck instead of a fire engine.
  • An inaccurate weather forecast on March 22 (the day of the prescribed fire), which predicted a cooling trend on March 25 and moderate winds on March 25. The wind event for March 26 was first predicted on March 24.
  • The unusual method of fire spread consisting of numerous burning embers blowing across the ground “like little burning fleas moving across the ground”.
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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+