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Why does Colorado have such a hard time finding the cause of wildfires?


Officials are still looking for the cause of last week's devastating wildfire in Colorado. Nearly a thousand homes and businesses burned down. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle is in charge of the fire investigation. And at a news conference yesterday, he didn't give many details.


JOE PELLE: You're going to lose your patience with me. But hopefully, in weeks or a month or two months, we'll be able to tell you what happened and why. And it will be good, accurate information.

MARTIN: Colorado actually doesn't have a very good track record for finding the cause of wildfires. In fact, it's got the worst record of any Western state. Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch was part of an investigation into that, and he joins us this morning. Sam, thanks for being here.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So we know hurricane-force winds spread the fire quickly. But beyond that, is there any early indication at all as to what started this?

BRASCH: You know, very little. There is a lot of speculation and chatter on social media at this point. This after Sheriff Joe Pelle of Boulder County said that downed power lines were likely to cause. He's since retracted that and now is only saying it's an open investigation and that dozens of people are being interviewed about it.

MARTIN: You and your colleagues found that over the last couple of decades, Colorado authorities haven't been very good at figuring out what's behind wildfires like this, right?

BRASCH: That's right. Investigators have only found the cause of large, human-caused wildfires about 43% of the time that's the worst rate of any Western state. And big prominent fires remain unsolved, too, like the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire. These are the first- and second-largest in state history. And that bugs some law enforcement officials. Here's Steve Nowlin. He's the sheriff of Montezuma County in southwest Colorado. And he's one of the few local law enforcement officers with a deputy trained in wildfire investigations.

STEVE NOWLIN: We just want answers just like everybody else. I do. I want to know how it started and why and who's responsible for that. That's so very, very important. It really is. And especially if you have loss of life, oh, yeah, that's a serious crime. And there needs to be consequences and people held accountable for that.

MARTIN: So why is it so tough to find the cause of wildfires in Colorado?

BRASCH: It's clear that a lack of resources is a big reason. Many counties don't have any trained fire investigators. And our investigation found that the state itself has six investigators to assist local law enforcement. And that's not even close to other Western states. Utah, for example, has twice that number. Other experts my colleagues spoke to who say that investigation is essential. If you don't know what starts fires in an area, it's a lot tougher to prevent the next one. But it appears they are taking this one more seriously in Boulder County. The FBI is assisting, as is the Forest Service.

MARTIN: So what are potential mitigation steps that the state or local communities could take on?

BRASCH: I think one that's potentially on the table is how Colorado builds new housing and protects existing housing. This is a rapidly growing state. And unlike other Western states, it doesn't have a minimum building code for homes in areas vulnerable to wildfires. That's something one state lawmaker I know plans to introduce in the upcoming legislative session. They planned to do that even before these fires hit, so I expect it'll be an even more urgent discussion now.

MARTIN: Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch, thank you.

BRASCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
[Copyright 2024 CPR News]
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