A flaming cow pie has sparked an investigation into whether federal firefighters should be held responsible for a 900-acre wildfire set last Friday during a controlled burn.
Weld County’s top prosecutor Wednesday called for an investigation into the fire, saying residents complained to him that firefighters should never have started the burn on such a windy day. The sheriff’s office later Wednesday agreed to investigate the fire, which sparked out of control when wind gusts up to 40 mph lifted a burning cow pie over the Forest Service fireline at the Pawnee National Grassland at about 11:30 a.m. last Friday.
Fire crews didn’t immediately notice the cow pie, which quickly spread flames to the southeast of the controlled burn site.
District Ranger Steve Currey said Forest Service officials are investigating whether firefighters followed regulations and likely will release results of that review early next week.
He said he was unaware District Attorney Ken Buck was seeking a separate investigation until Thursday morning, when he started getting questions from the media.
“I’ll work with Ken and the Weld County Sheriff’s Office; we don’t have anything to hide,” he said. “I would have felt better about it if Ken had come directly to me.”
Buck said in a letter to Weld County Sheriff John Cooke he isn’t suggesting firefighters should be held responsible for the fire, but said he is “concerned that we are creating a double standard for investigating fires if we do not look into this matter.”
The Forest Service had been burning all last week, intending to blacken 6,300 acres. They were about two-thirds finished Friday when the fire got out of control.
Firefighters say when they started the burn, winds were blowing at between 10 and 15 mph.
“And then the winds did come up quite a bit,” Currey said.
Pushed by gusts, the fire scorched nearly 600 acres of the federally managed land and 300 acres of a farmer’s property near Weld County roads 125 and 134, causing thousands of dollars in damage.
“Normally, we can catch these things very quickly,” Currey said. “They did not see the spot from the cow pie until it got a head start on us. Unfortunately, about the same time the winds came up. We caught it near Mr. (Tony) Joska’s property.”
Currey said the Forest Service will have to replace 14 power poles and a fence damaged in the fire.
The blaze also burned trees in a windbreak on Joska’s property and through a parcel of land planted with native grasses, which Joska is paid to let sit idle.
If that land, part of a natural resources conservation program, needs to be reseeded, the Forest Service will pay to have it done.
“There’s several things that we’re going to need to go in and replace,” Currey said.
He estimates the power poles alone could cost $14,000 to replace.
Jenn Ooton can be reached at 303-684-5295, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.