Suspect arrested, charged with arson
Patrick Bassatt, 49, was spotted near the fire and around West Vail by at least eight witnesses Monday morning, police said. A few hours later, he apparently walked right into the arms of investigators on a trail west of the fire.
“We’re shocked this is a possible arson,” said Vail Fire Chief John Gulick. “Something small like this could turn into something very large and ruin the economy here and everyone’s livelihoods.”
Bassatt may have been camping somewhere in the valley, but authorities aren’t sure where, Vail police Sgt. Mike Warren said.
Plumes of smoke began curling into the air above West Vail shortly after 8:30 a.m. Monday. More than 30 firefighters attacked the blaze, hiking about a thousand feet up the steep slope, fire hose in tow.
Several witnesses spotted a man with long blonde hair scampering up the hillside just as smoke began billowing from the dry sagebrush.
“I saw a guy walking up to the the fire, then he came out above it,” said Steve Dziekan, who was at the laundromat in West Vail. “He looked back down and then he started running along the ridge.”
An Air National Guard helicopter flew over West Vail searching for Bassatt, who was caught on a nearby trail, Warren said.
“He walked right into Vail police, who were in the area searching for a suspect,” Warren said. “He also was positively identified by a witness and admitted to being in the area.”
Bassatt was arrested about noon, police said.
The wildfire, meanwhile, was extinguished by 2:45 p.m. without threatening any of the homes on Chamonix Road below.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service. But Bassatt has been charged on suspicion of second-degree arson, a felony that carries a penalty of between two and six years in jail and fines of up $5,000.
Bassatt, who is originally from Michigan, was being held on $5,000 bond at the Vail town jail.
Formal federal charges are pending, Warren said.
“Eight witnesses saw him – on the Frontage Road, in the City Market parking lot, going up the trail, looking over the fire,” Warren said. “You can really see that the community is concerned about this. The witnesses helped us tremendously.”
The risk of wildfire in the valley is considered extremely high because of dry conditions throughout the valley. Campfires, fireworks and open burning is banned in the National Forest and throughout Eagle County.
Firefighters, who expect that they will have to deal with wildfires caused naturally by lightning, say battling blazed caused by people will only stretch their resources to the limit.
“People know how dry it is and we’re doing everything we can to protect the outdoors around us and the indoors we live in,” Gulick said. “I’m shocked somebody would do something like this.”