How humans start most of Colorado’s wildfires — and get away with it |

How humans start most of Colorado’s wildfires — and get away with it

Ben Markus and Veronica Penney
CPR News
The East Troublesome Fire is seen from Cottonwood Pass looking north on Oct. 21, 2020, as the fire ripped across Grand County.
Andrew Lussie/U.S. Forest Service

DENVER — A hunter spots a plume of smoke in the forest and calls 911 to report fire nearby. Though he may have been the first witness to the start of the East Troublesome Fire — the costliest wildfire in Colorado history — that Texas man has never been interviewed by the U.S. Forest Service.

A backpacker hears a gunshot, sees smoke in the distance and uses satellite tracking to note his location. He keeps a detailed log recording the first days of what would become the Cameron Peak Fire — the largest wildfire by acreage in state history. But more than a year later, investigators still have not heard his account.

Though both these 2020 wildfires are believed to have been started by humans, their exact causes remain unknown.

In Colorado, that’s not unusual.

Investigators determined what created the initial spark in fewer than half of the large, human-caused fires in Colorado between 2000 and 2018 — the worst rate of any western state. More often than not, investigators in other states — whether with local, state or federal authorities — are able to rule with certainty on whether large human-caused fires were started by unattended campfire rings, power lines, gunfire, arson or other ignition sources.

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