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.
At every level, Colorado investigators said they are doing their best, but resources have been stretched thin by a growing number of wildfires thanks to human-caused climate change and more people living and recreating in the wildland. While the state has increased money for fire suppression and clearing undergrowth, little has gone to investigation. Few county sheriff’s departments employ trained wildfire investigators, and the federal forest service was down to just one available investigator when the East Troublesome fire erupted near Kremmling last October.
But a CPR News review of federal data, along with about 100 interviews, also revealed a culture in which determining origin and cause takes a backseat in the critical early days of a wildfire’s spread and beyond and where fundamental investigative steps like interviewing witnesses can fall through the cracks.
Retired U.S. Forest Service investigator Lucas Woolf said the problem has persisted for years but has gotten worse as the number of fire starts has grown.
“What I saw to be our problem, where we needed to improve, was actually getting that manpower to be able to investigate these fires,” said Woolf. “To me it wasn't enough for somebody to show up and look at it and be like, ‘Oh, I looked at it, nothing glaring, I didn't find any cause.’ Well, how much time did you actually spend?”
Among law enforcement, there is even a term for the cursory effort made to determine the cause of wildfires: “windshield investigation.”
Woolf spoke anecdotally about cases where he had first-hand knowledge of cursory investigations conducted by colleagues in the service.
“You kind of pull up, look at it,” said Woolf, who retired from the Forest Service after 23 years. He said if the cause wasn’t obvious, he knows some fire investigators simply write it up as undetermined and moved on.
“There's fires where investigators ... I know nobody ever showed up,” said Woolf.
Proper wildfire investigation can require crawling on the ground through ash to sift for clues. A shell casing, a burnt match, a sliver of metal from a vehicle. None of those can be seen from a distance or even without a magnifying glass at the actual point of origin.
The inability to find those origins fails to hold fire starters accountable and deprives policy makers of data on causes that could explain what humans — who cause nine out of 10 wildfires in the U.S. — are doing wrong to prevent it in the future.
After any serious traffic accident in Colorado, a report is filled out noting how it occurred and what factors contributed. Each of those reports, from every state, are pored over by experts, and patterns are identified that can result in changes as simple as new traffic lights or as complex as automotive recalls.
Nothing similar is required with wildfires, whether they occur on private land on the eastern plains or in a huge national forest straddling the Continental Divide. Colorado has averaged about 4,000 wildfires a year over the last five years, and the reports are often initially filled out by volunteer firefighters who have no investigative training and little time to examine why a field burned in the absence of lightning.
Volunteers make up most fire fighting districts in rural Colorado.
“They're doing bake sales to put fuel in the trucks and getting basic training,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Those certifications for fire or arson or wildland investigation will always land lower on the priority because it's not the life safety impacts of what they're trying to do.”
The ranking of priorities shows in Colorado’s statistics as compared to other states.
“Honestly, prevention has kind of always been the thing that's done at the end, or ‘if we have money,’” said Gwen Beavens, Branch Chief of Wildfire Prevention and Community Mitigation at the U.S. Forest Service.
But the cost of preventing a fire is a fraction of the cost of paying for firefighters, fire trucks and planes or helicopters to put out a wildfire. One study in Florida estimated that every dollar spent on prevention would save $35 in suppression costs down the road.
Even when a cause is determined, that information about how a wildfire started may not be recorded, especially among volunteer fire departments in rural areas.
“As soon as they get done with the fire, they're back out harvesting their crop,” said Morgan. “To sit down in front of a computer and do a report doesn't seem like a high priority to them.”
Morgan said the haphazard approach to reporting wildfires means the data is too messy to draw conclusions.
“If you don't have the right data, then you don't even know what the enemy is,” said Morgan.
“Human caused” becomes a diagnosis by exclusion. Global satellite networks make it possible to know when and where lightning hits the ground, and if lightning wasn’t present at the start of a wildfire, the cause is likely to be ascribed to human activity.
But investigators were able to get from “human caused” to what actually created the initial spark in just 43 percent of the large wildfires in the state between 2000 and 2018. Colorado, Montana and Oregon all experienced roughly the same number of wildfires from 2000 through 2018, according to U.S.F.S. data. Yet Montana was able to pinpoint the ignition source for 74 percent of its human-started fires and Oregon solved 58 percent. Utah which has a more robust investigative force, determines the actual cause of more than three quarters of the human-started fires.
A comparison to other states also indicates that Colorado’s investigative failures are likely missing dozens of arson fires each year. Just two percent of the state’s fires are determined to be arson, meaning that someone started a fire intentionally, rather than by accident. In California, that number is about 11 percent.
“Arson is consistent throughout the world,” said Ed Nordskog, an arson investigator and expert based in California. States “should have similar statistics. I would expect California to be higher just because there's so many more investigators, but the statistics should be fairly similar, around eight to 12 percent for all the states.”
Colorado is the only state in the U.S. without a state fire marshal. That means Colorado has less centralized control over fire investigations, policy, training and data collection than other states. Local burn control orders come from county governments that may not analyze data on what causes fires, so they are limited in their ability to know how they might be prevented.
The predictable result: A vicious fire cycle in which more and larger burns tax investigators further, which leaves them unable to do thorough investigations, which leads to more undetermined origin conclusions, which obstructs the creation of effective fire policies in the state.
“The more accurately we can identify the reasons for a fire, then the more we can hopefully reduce the likelihood of a fire even starting,” Karl Bauer, fire chief of Eagle River Fire Protection District. “Fires are occurring more frequently, they’re burning hotter, faster, they're growing into some of these large monstrous fires that we’ve recently experienced. We have to match our resource commitment.”
Nordskog said that should begin with working just as hard to determine the causes of wildfires as firefighters work to put them out.
“We have to address the wildland problem and it's been ignored,” Nordskog said. “It is the poor stepchild of the arson investigation field, which is a poor stepchild of the fire department.”
The crack of a gunshot at 1 p.m. around Blue Lake Pass
Colton McDonald explains the route he took on his backpacking trip around Cameron Peak. Photo taken October 14, 2021. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)
On August 13, 2020, Colton McDonald started a planned 10-day solo backpacking trip into the wilderness around Cameron Peak. He said he left his home in the Loveland suburbs early that day, and got to the Blue Lake trailhead just as the sun was rising over the horizon.
“So I remember being like, ‘Yes. OK. My timing is good,’” said McDonald. “Made it pretty far up Blue Lake trail, maybe a mile or two, before seeing anybody and already to me that was, you know, again when I was sort of seeking out there.”
But the solitude was shattered by what McDonald says was the distinctive crack of a gunshot at about 1p.m. around Blue Lake pass. McDonald kept detailed notes of his journey on a National Geographic map of the wilderness area around Cameron Peak he brought with him on the trip.
“And maybe 30 minutes later or so, I'm getting over the pass and I'm taking a break to rehydrate, and I noticed there's some smoke coming up through the trees,” McDonald recalled.
At first he thought it was a campfire and hiked on. But the plume quickly got bigger. McDonald said he kept his back to where he thought the fire started. He had planned an out and back trip, but now he couldn’t go back.
“Pretty quickly my plan became to just get as far away from this thing as I could,” said McDonald.
He kept hiking north, and the wind was in his favor, blowing the smoke away from him, but there were some ominous signs.
“I started to kind of notice a lot of wildlife. I mean, every single morning I'd wake up and there would be herds of sheep and elk and deer that I would spook and they would move on down the trail,” McDonald said. “And I couldn't help wondering, like there's all this wildlife also moving in the same direction that I am. Is it all getting spooked up this way?”
But after several days of hiking he realized he was stuck out there. He pushed the SOS button on his Garmin GPS. Within hours he was whisked by helicopter to safety.
McDonald had just escaped what would become the largest wildfire in state history, and he was a potential witness to how it started. He eventually found himself in front of someone from the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
“I remember getting sat down and I'm thinking, ‘OK, this was a helicopter ride. I had to get the National Guard called, there's gotta be some paperwork here. What is this going to cost me?’ is going through my head,” recalled McDonald.
But all they wanted to see was his fishing license, then drove him to his car and let him go. More than a year later, no investigator has contacted him. And McDonald hasn’t exactly been hard to find, he’s done interviews with local newspapers and TV.
Two months later and a county over, in Grand County, Joe Stout, who lives outside of Dallas, was in a similar position. He was visiting Colorado to hunt elk in the wilderness areas north of Kremmling. Just after noon on Oct. 14, 2020, he was on his way back to his campsite from the Troublesome Meat Market when he noticed a plume of smoke.
Stout knew the location. He turned to his son. “I told him, I said, ‘Well, there's probably nobody up there. That's a brand new fire,’ so I called it in,” said Stout in an interview.
The East Troublesome fire in Grand County would become the second largest wildfire in state history, around 193,000 acres burned. It’s also listed as the costliest by the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association with insured damages of $543 million.
Though Stout gave his name and contact information to the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, he too has never heard from anyone investigating the fire.
“We had no contact with them after I reported it,” said Stout. He wasn’t sure how helpful he’d be now, but he did have video and photos of the first plume of smoke.
There was a “pretty good glow” from the fire to their west, but Stout and his son went back to their campsite to sleep for the night. But winds picked up, Stout estimated 40 to 60 miles per hour. “Then my son woke up about three o'clock and he said, ‘We gotta get outta here.’ Cause there was fire all around us.”
Stout hooked up his trailers “and headed down the mountain with fire on both sides of the road, no evacuation order, no call to my cell phone,” recalled Stout.
“Got down to the end of the public land, and there was a gate that had been chained closed that somebody had already broke through and there was barricades and roads that we had to move to get out,” Stout said.
He eventually made it safely to a friend’s house in Kremmling.
Neither McDonald nor Stout would seem to have information that could crack the cases wide open. But are they potential puzzle pieces that need to at least be catalogued if an investigation is to be considered thorough?
Former U.S. Forest Service special agent Lucas Woolf said he wasn’t familiar with these cases, but eyewitnesses or the first reporting parties are critical to any investigation.
“Absolutely, at all times,” said Woolf. “You never hang your hat on some of these eyewitness accounts, but it's great information. And, I definitely want to talk to them for sure. And then you can make the determination as an investigator. ‘Well, I think this guy's just full of crap’ or, ‘Hey, wow. ‘He's got some really good information that I did not know about.’”
The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for managing 11.3 million acres in Colorado, about half the state’s forests. Those forests are popular destinations for campers, backpackers and hunters and have seen a surge in both legal and illegal use since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. To oversee that land, the National Forest Service has between 25 and 30 trained wildfire investigators stationed in Colorado at any given moment, said Patrick Brown, the U.S.F.S. regional supervisor. He oversees the agents from the agency’s offices in Golden.
Brown declined to talk about the specifics of any cases they are currently working, but said his investigators do their best under difficult circumstances to find answers. And last year, the Forest Service was stretched thin by an unusually intense and long fire season.
“But everyone was handling it,” said Brown. “We're doing the best we can. And every fire got it, got its attention, the proper attention to be investigated.”
He said he wasn’t familiar enough with the cases to know why witnesses to the start of the two large fires still hadn’t been contacted more than a year later, but he said that didn’t raise red flags for him.
“As far as trying to get everything that was said, we will look at everything that's out there, find out who's the reporting party and start following everything down,” said Brown. “As far as a decision for the investigator to make, what is in their opinion is going to be helpful and what isn't, after a while, you can get overloaded with so much information that you have to be a little more selective in that.”
Later, a spokeswoman for the service insisted that all leads had been pursued, then asked CPR News to provide contact information for the witnesses.
The Forest Service did not respond to follow up questions about why leads were not followed.
Those lost opportunities in the early hours after a fire begins can have serious consequences in the days and weeks that follow. A small, seemingly insignificant fire can grow into something else. The East Troublesome fire, for example, was a smoky, annoying mess for the better part of a week, until winds picked up and pushed it in a matter of hours toward Grand Lake.
What had been perhaps an accidental fire in the woods, suddenly became a possible double-homicide case.
Glenn Hileman was in Salt Lake City on the night of Oct. 21 when he got a call from his parents in Grand County.
“And at that point, my parents were already hunkered down in their house,” recalled Hileman. “There was no way to get in or out at that point. And they called me on the phone and explained that the fire was over the entire fields.”
Glenn’s father Lyle was a longtime Denver firefighter, and wasn’t a rich man, but Glenn says he and his mother Marylin poured every dollar into this property on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.
“They loved it. They loved to entertain. They picked a spot to retire where they knew their family would come and this was it,” Hileman said.
The fire would consume everything on the property. Hileman says his parents, both in their 80s, were found arm in arm in the basement. They asphyxiated before the fire destroyed the house.
Ultimately, their deaths were classified as accidental on death certificates because, in the coroner’s view, the actual cause of the fire is unknown, and many events combined after the fire started, including the decision not to evacuate, leading to their deaths. In other cases, seemingly unintended deaths from fires are classified as homicides, meaning one human caused the death of another, though arrests or prosecutions for crimes associated with wildfires are rare.
Colorado has more fires but few wildfire investigators
Burned trees left from the 2020 Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County. Oct. 24, 2021. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Wildfires are more varied than just the headline-grabbing large fires in the mountains, including everything from a burning shrub in the metro area to a 100,000-acre inferno in a remote forest. The fires can start in any number of ways: by a juvenile burning a pile of leaves in Montezuma County to a man in Elbert County who started a wildfire to cover up a murder.
That makes it tough to get to an exact cause no matter the investigatory resources, especially as evidence burns. But no state struggles more with wildfire investigations than Colorado.
Colorado has what fire officials refer to as “strong local control,” meaning each county decides which activities will be banned on days when there is a high risk of wildfire and when to declare bans. Counties are also responsible for investigating any wildfires that start on private land.
“We do provide fire and arson investigation support to local governments, but that is only at their request,” said Morgan.
It’s nearly impossible to find out how many qualified wildfire investigators there are in Colorado. The state doesn’t keep a list, like other states do.
“It is something of a specialty,” said Karl Bauer, fire chief of Eagle River Fire Protection District. “And not all local fire departments have the capacity to dedicate an individual to that level of training.”
Outside of the fire departments, small counties like Montezuma may have a sheriff’s deputy trained in wildfire investigation, but large counties like Larimer do not. More than half of sheriff's offices in Colorado do not have trained wildfire investigators. Many sheriffs said, if needed, they would ask the state for help.
The state currently has six investigators either getting training or who are fully qualified, along with an arson dog named Jojo. That corps has grown — in 2018, there was only one investigator and a dog (that one was named Riley). But it’s still probably too few to make a big difference.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can help when requested on local fires. But last year’s epic fire season stretched federal resources to the brink in Colorado and across the West, making state resources critical to filling the gaps.
California’s state wildfire agency, Cal Fire, said it has 175 law enforcement officers, 80 of whom are full-time fire investigators. Cal Fire also contracts with local fire departments to help staffing, and will often supply investigative resources. California identifies arson on large fires more than any other western state, except Oregon.
In general, law enforcement officers receive training in evidence collection and interrogation skills that many firefighters do not. Gianni Muschetto, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, said that a fast law enforcement response to California fires could explain those higher arson numbers.
“We're able to identify witnesses," said Muschetto, "and maybe quickly, detain or identify a suspect early on, and then, work that investigation, and then be able to make that arrest. That may not be the case for every agency or every state.”
But even states smaller than Colorado have far greater resources to investigate fires. Utah, for example, has 12 investigators fully certified, according to the state’s fire chief, with a chief investigator supervising them. It has local control, like Colorado, but the state has agreements with local authorities to help investigate.
The state’s association of insurers believes Colorado needs to find a way to more thoroughly investigate wildfires in order to prevent them in the future.
“Certainly in Colorado, we're a local control state,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “That is something that is important to those municipalities to have that jurisdictional power. However, at the same time, when it comes to wildfire, we need to work together both as a state and at a federal level to address these issues and make sure we're putting the proper resources, both in funding and in people and expertise to make sure that we're looking at how these fires start.
“Wildland fires is one of those risks that we can control,” she said.
Colorado has shown a willingness to invest in putting out fires.
“Last session we committed a pretty significant dollar figure to the state buying one helicopter,” said Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, of Vail. “The argument of buying that Firehawk is ‘one helicopter can provide, quick and expedient response to keep a fire from growing rapidly.’”
“Then it seems to me that we would be able to build an argument supportive of staffing [more investigators],” added Donovan. CPR’s reporting “makes quite a compelling case for Colorado needing to catch up with other states in the arid mountain west.”
In Idaho, the state fire marshal says each of his eight deputies has wildland fire investigator training. His office also trains the state’s firefighters in scene preservation and basic fire investigation.
“The best thing they can do is protect that area of origin,” said Knute Sandahl, the Idaho State Fire Marshal. “Rope it off, cone it off, position a firefighter right there to keep other firefighters from disturbing the scene.”
The number of human wildfires with undetermined cause is a big problem with a simple solution. Everyone agrees that there needs to be more investigators. Getting that through more training and mentorship would cost resources, but it would be a tiny portion of the billions the United States annually spends on fire suppression.
“I've watched things change,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division Fire Prevention and Control, who has spent 35 years in fire fighting in the state. “What the risks are and what we're asking our firefighters to do, what they're up against, you know, in this. I think it's time for change.”
CPR News climate and environment reporter Sam Brasch contributed to this report.
This investigation is brought to you by Colorado Public Radio's Investigations Team. Help make more accountability journalism projects possible with a gift today.
Smoke from the East Troublesome fire in Grand County hovers over Lake Estes in Estes Park on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Lead photos: The East Troublesome fire burns just a few miles from Granby in the early hours of Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)
North of Estes Park, smoke and ash from the nearby East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fire cover the trees, the mountains and the grass, Oct. 22, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
You can read more stories about Colorado wildfires by CPR News here:
- A year after the East Troublesome wildfire, some residents work to rebuild homes and community while others move away for good
- What an atmospheric scientist wants you to know about that wildfire smoke you breath during wildfire season
- Wildfires are ravaging the West. Research shows the people in their paths vastly underestimate the risk