Feds: Hunters ignited 2019 Cow Creek Fire

 Photo courtesy of the GMUG Fire Information Facebook page
Photo courtesy of the GMUG Fire Information Facebook page (KKCO)
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 3:02 PM MDT
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EDITOR’S NOTE:  Nearly three years after the Cow Creek Fire torched about 850 acres of forest land east of Ridgway — and after denying Ouray County Plaindealer requests for information for more than two years — the U.S. Forest Service released a report attributing the cause of the fire to an improvised and improperly installed spark arrestor at a hunting camp run by a local outfitter. The owner of the outfitting company, Roy Jackson, disputes the Forest Service’s finding. Meanwhile, the public continues to wait for more information about the May 19 Simms Fire that destroyed a home and other structures in northwest Ouray County. The Forest Service acknowledged in June a prescribed burn the agency ignited three days earlier was the cause of the fire. The Plaindealer has filed multiple requests for more information. The agency has conducted an analysis and review to examine what happened and determine what lessons can be learned, but it has given no indication when that analysis will be released to the public.

RIDGWAY, Colo. (Ouray County Plaindealer) – The 2019 Cow Creek Fire, which burned about 850 acres of forest east of Ridgway and cost more than $2 million to suppress, was caused by an improvised and improperly installed spark arrestor at a hunting camp run by a local outfitter business, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

More than 1,000 days after the fire started near Courthouse Mountain, the agency completed its investigation into the fire and released an Origin and Cause Supplemental Incident Report, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Plaindealer. The hunting outfitter named in the report disputes the agency’s determination.

The agency hadn’t released any official information about the cause of the fire until May 2022, when Ouray District Ranger Dana Gardunio responded to a question about it at a town hall meeting for the Simms Fire. At the time, Gardunio confirmed the agency believes the Cow Creek Fire started at a hunting camp, but provided no further information. Previous requests for the investigative reports made since spring 2020 were denied.

The newly-released report details how the agency’s Law Enforcement and Investigations Region 2 Fire Investigation Team determined “the most probable cause of the Cow Creek Fire was from embers and burning material exiting a stovepipe attached to wood burning stove without a functional spark arrestor and/or proper installation of a functional spark arrestor.” Spark arrestors are used to keep embers, ash and sparks from exiting a chimney or stovepipe.

The stove was inside a wall tent in the Green Mountain Camp, owned and operated by Cow Creek Outfitters, the report said.

Roy Jackson, who owns Jackson Outfitters and who purchased Cow Creek Outfitters more than a year before the fire, disputed that determination in an interview with the Plaindealer. “I really don’t agree with that,” he said.

Jackson and investigators both said the camp was left largely untouched by the fire, and Jackson said the fire was about 45 yards away from the camp. “It would be a long way for an ember to blow in the air and hit the ground and start a fire,” he said. Jackson also said the hunters described the fire as burning toward the camp, not originating from it.

But he said he hasn’t heard from the Forest Service in more than a year, including in attempts to get his tent back, which is still being held as evidence. “I have not had any contact from them since about three to six months after (the fire),” Jackson said. And he hasn’t heard yet if there will be any financial penalties levied against the company.

The total cost of fighting the fire, according to the report, was $2,246,383, including aviation, contracts, travel and compensation.

“Obviously I am concerned about that,” Jackson said. “But nothing has been said about it.” A press officer for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office said the agency couldn’t comment on the report or its findings at this time.

***

The fire was first reported by hunters staying at the camp around 6:15 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2019, and two Forest Service special agents and a law enforcement officer hiked into the camp two days later. On Oct. 22, they executed a search warrant, seizing evidence including a stovepipe, camp stove, tent and tarp. The investigation also included six interviews, flights over the fire origin area and examination of the outfitter’s base camp, according to the report. Names of those interviewed, including the hunters who reported the fire and people interviewed from the outfitting company, were redacted from the report; the Forest Service cited exemptions from the FOIA preventing disclosure of information that would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Ten audio and video files were also withheld from the documents released, and were forwarded to the Forest Service’s Washington office for further processing.

When investigators arrived at the Green Mountain Camp on Oct. 18, they found two tents: a tan wall tent containing cots, sleeping bags, food and gear, and a dome tent that appeared to have been ripped open by a bear. The camp appeared to be largely untouched by the fire, though a dead and down tree nearby was still smoldering.

There were numerous burn holes through a tarp over the roof of the tent, and pieces of charcoal and remnants from embers between the tarp and the roof.

They noticed the chimney of the stove pipe in the wall tent appeared to have something placed inside.

Under advice from a Colorado assistant U.S. attorney, they removed the top three sections of the stovepipe that could be taken from the outside of the tent, and also seized the tarp.

An investigator’s note in the report states that the stovepipe sections appeared to be new and installed that season. “Chicken wire was folded flat, then rolled and placed into the top of the stovepipe,” the report said. “Heavy build up of soot and creosote was observed at the base of the improvised spark arrestor.”

The investigators also examined Cow Creek Outfitters’ base camp, and found spark arrestor screens were installed over the top of the openings of two stovepipes on two wall tents there. Spark arrestors aren’t required when fire restrictions are not in place, unless specified in a special use permit or authorization, an investigator wrote in the report. At the time, the forest was not under fire restrictions.

The investigators returned to the Green Mountain Camp on Oct. 22, when they seized the camp stove, sections of the stove pipe, two tubes of fire paste, a package of Dura-Flame Stix fire starters, lighter fluid and the wall tent.

***

In interviews with special agents, summarized in the report, the outfitter service confirmed that four hunters had booked a self-guided elk hunt with Cow Creek Outfitters, which included use of the camp.

All four hunters were interviewed, and all said they were told to ensure the spark arrestor was put into the stovepipe when they arrived at the camp. Two of the hunters said they had never seen a spark arrestor before, and three said they didn’t know why it hadn’t already been installed.

Two of the hunters said they were also shown how to use the stove and damper.

One of the hunters said he and another man installed the spark arrestor together: He held the pipe while the other put the chicken wire inside, and ‘they assumed it went in from the top.” He said there were burn holes around where the stovepipe went through the tent’s roof, and thought that was why they were told to install the arrestor. He said he thought it might choke the fire out. That same hunter told the interviewer he was surprised there wasn’t a fire ban in place, according to the summary. There had been restrictions earlier in the summer, but none were in place by mid-October.

In January, investigators conducted a follow-up interview with two unnamed people affiliated with the outfitter service. They confirmed they had packed the group of hunters into the site in two trips, and “confirmed they did show the first two guests how to use the woodstove and confirmed they instructed the hunters to install the spark arrestor once the stove cooled down.”

Jackson told the Plaindealer the hunters were not from Colorado, but didn’t have more information on hand about their background or experience. He told the Plaindealer they incorrectly installed the spark arrestor by putting the mesh inside the pipe. “They shoved it down in there,” he said, instead of placing it on the top of the stovepipe.

***

One hunter said he woke at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, and heard twigs snapping to the north of the tent when he went to use the latrine. Another said he heard “what sounded like something walking through the woods” around the same time, but he looked for something on the ridge and didn’t see anything.

Sometime before 6 a.m., the first hunter went outside the tent again and saw “the whole ridge was glowing orange, which he first thought was a moon set and said it was not dawning on him what was going on.” When the flames intensified, he realized the severity of the situation, the summary said.

He told the investigators he “hollered to the guys that they needed to go,” and that he tried to make a phone call and sent text messages.

He estimated the fire was about 200 yards away when he noticed it, and said the group was panicked and worried that the fire would be pushed downhill as they tried to leave.

Another hunter interviewed thought the flames were 300 to 400 yards away when the first hunter told them they needed to leave. The third hunter described a 911 call, and said a dispatcher told one of the men they needed to get out of the area, and the fourth hunter interviewed said they could feel the heat of the fire before leaving the area.

In interviews, the hunters reported seeing some others in the area previously, including a group camping above them on the trail and another group below them, but thought or assumed they left over the weekend. When they made it down to base camp after spotting the fire Wednesday morning, they saw no other vehicles and assumed everyone was gone.

Jackson said he and his son had been in the area on the ridge the day before the fire was reported, where they smelled smoke, and later that day he saw a hiker leaving on the trail. He said he provided that information to the investigators.

Jackson also said he was told by an investigator that the agency waited too long to fly over the site to determine the exact origin of the fire.

The materials released along with the report include aerial photographs and videos from the Forest Service Helitack Crew dated Oct. 16, the same day the fire was reported, as well as videos from Oct. 19.

The videos from the first day of the fire “depicted advancing fire progressing upslope toward the ridgeline northeast of the Green Mountain Outfitter & Guide (O&G) camp,” the report said. The primary fuels were dead standing and dead and down pine, spruce and aspen, fine fall grasses and sparse brush. “A distinctive V pattern was observed originating from where the Green Mountain camp was reported to be,” the report said.

***

When two special agents examined the stove, pipe and spark arrestor seized from the camp, they saw air vents and a damper were fully open. Inside the stove, they found white ash, a partially burned piece of wood, coal and a burned foil bag.

The bottom section of the stovepipe was discolored “due to exposure to elevated temperatures within the pipe,” the report said, and “soot and creosote accumulation increased significantly as investigators move(d) in an up-flow progression.”

An opening in the center of the improvised arrestor was about 2 ½ inches wide.

The investigators determined that the narrowing of the 5-inch stovepipe to that 2 ½-inch opening “increased the flow rate of hot air and gases exiting the stovepipe,” and said the improperly installed spark arrestor contributed to excessive buildup in the top section of the stovepipe. The restricted airflow in the pipe caused the “responsible parties” to fully open the air vents on the wood stove, as well as the damper on the stovepipe, which raised the burn temperatures inside the stove and pipe.

Light winds then pushed the embers exiting the stovepipe to the north and northeast of the tent, where they landed on “receptive fuels,” the dry grassy vegetation covered by fallen aspen leaves, which ignited.

The investigation ruled out lighting, equipment use, smoking, a campfire, debris burning, arson and 15 other possible causes.

***

Because the Forest Service declined to comment on the investigation, it’s not clear what the next steps for the agency will be or if there will be any consequences for anyone involved.

Jackson said he has not been notified or contacted about fines or penalties.

The outfitter company has continued to operate, and offers guided hunts in nine different hunting units covering parts of Montrose, Mesa, San Miguel, Gunnison, Delta, Hinsdale and Ouray counties.

But they no longer offer drop camps, instead only running guided hunts.

That was partially due to their own preference, Jackson said, but also due to the impacts of the fire.

“It kind of sparked the direction of us needing to be a little more hands-on with what’s going on at our camps,” he said.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit service program that places journalists in underserved areas. To support her work here in Ouray County with a tax-deductible donation, click here.