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Signs in the cinders 

What started the Waldo Canyon Fire? With any luck, we will have the answer to that question soon.

"Fire not only destroys things, it also leaves evidence," says Jeff Berino, a fire chief in Summit County and a private wildfire investigator with Arvada-based Pie Consulting & Engineering. And investigators use that evidence to track down its cause in a methodical, often time-consuming process.

Because the fire raged largely in a national forest, that investigation is being headed by the U.S. Forest Service.

According to Lt. Jeff Kramer with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, the Forest Service is being assisted by a task force made up of personnel from local law enforcement agencies, as well as the FBI and ATF. At a Tuesday morning press conference, Kramer stated that he could offer no timeline regarding the investigation.

Speaking as someone with 33 years of experience with fires, both as a firefighter and an investigator, Berino says the first step in the Waldo Canyon area will surely be to get the investigation site down to a manageable size.

Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey agrees, and adds, "Wherever a fire starts, it's a pretty small area."

Investigators will review the weather there during the fire, as wind is one of the primary drivers.

"That will tell them generally the direction that the fire went," Berino says. "They will also look at the topography and the fuel package."

And they'll conduct interviews with eyewitnesses to the early flames. News footage from helicopters can also be useful, as well as video provided by regular citizens. "YouTube videos are always popular," he says.

In the case of Waldo Canyon, a number of people, including media, saw the blaze in its early stages. One June 23 video, shot on Rampart Range Road by a coach with Carmichael Training Systems, is already being scrutinized by investigators, according to CBS4 in Denver.

Once the area is narrowed as much as possible, investigators will look for indicators of the fire's movement. These might be patterns left by the fire on trees, rocks, fence posts, cars, homes, foundations, and so on.

Berino says he's used the scarring on golf balls, cow patties, skeletal remains of wildlife, "anything that is out there."

Directional indicators can pinpoint the fire's possible ignition spot within a tenth of an acre, or just 4,000 square feet, roughly the size of a typical Mountain Shadows home's foundation.

"Then we start looking with magnifying glasses, and doing grid search line by line," even running a magnet over the ground, Berino says. "It is painstaking work."

What will he be looking for?

"Anything that doesn't belong."

Often, he says, it's something obvious: the striker plate from a book of matches; remnants of a roadside campfire; a piece of a catalytic converter; glass that the sun might have hit just right; a lighter; a bottle rocket.

Lightning strikes are the largest cause of naturally occurring fires in Colorado, he says. Often if a tree was struck, it won't be completely consumed and will still bear a telltale scar. Or, if the lightning hit the ground, it will melt the soil, leaving behind a glass-like substance that can go a foot deep.

That said, Berino cautions that sometimes, it's less obvious. And despite the work that goes into an investigation, a fire's cause will remain unknown 10 to 20 percent of the time.

"You may have a hunch," he says, "but you have to prove it scientifically."

chet@csindy.com

  • A professional explains how wildfire investigation is done.

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