The cause of most Colorado wildfires is unknown. These legislators want more fire investigators to help change that

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Trees near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake were charred as the East Troublesome Fire exploded in late 2020. Photo taken Jan. 18, 2021.

Colorado legislators have proposed hiring more wildfire investigators, an effort to reduce the state’s number of unsolved cases.

Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Kerry Donovan and state Rep. Dylan Roberts, would create a wildfire investigation team at the state level to aid local fire departments at a cost of $3 million annually. The bill also requires the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control to ensure the origin and cause data for fires is accurate and used to prevent future fires.

In October, a CPR News Investigation found that among western states, Colorado ranks last at solving large, human-started wildfires. In more than half of those wildfires, investigators were unable to pinpoint the individuals or devices that sparked the fire. Most of the state’s counties, which are responsible for investigating wildfires, do not have a trained wildfire investigator on staff.

CPR News spoke with dozens of current and former wildfire investigators, experts and county and state employees who said that Colorado does not have enough resources to investigate each of the thousands of wildfires reported each year.

“Colorado doesn't do as thorough a job as we possibly should and could on determining the cause of wildland fire,” said Donovan, D-Eagle County, who noted that the bill, SB 22-080, is in early stages. It’s already been substantially amended before its first hearing this afternoon in the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources committee.

It is not yet known how new investigators at the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control would fit in with investigative efforts by local sheriffs and fire departments. They must currently ask the state for help before the agency can aid in an investigation. Many of Colorado’s largest wildfires occur on federal land, and those wildfires are investigated by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

Donovan said discussions are ongoing “to see how best the Division thinks that they can support the locals and vice versa, kind of how that chain of command should work.” She envisions regional teams of state investigators. That’s similar to Utah’s model, and that state is the best in the western U.S. at identifying wildfire causes, according to CPR’s analysis.

The Division of Fire Prevention and Control told CPR back in October that it has six people certified in wildfire investigation, or in the process of obtaining certification. It also has a dog trained to find arson evidence. Utah currently has more than double the number of state investigators, with a chief investigator who manages them.

Mike Morgan, the director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said through a spokeswoman that he looks forward to working with the bill sponsors and hearing more about what they want to accomplish through DFPC.

Gov. Jared Polis, while not referencing this specific bill, signaled his support for beefing up state investigations in a December interview with CPR News’ Colorado Matters.

“I think we have to have a real conversation about what resources are needed. Given the numbers of fires we're having and the increased incidence at both the local level and the state level to hold people accountable,” Polis said.