Photograph by Brennan Linsley, AP Photo
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A plane drops retardant while battling the Cold Springs fire near Nederland, Colorado, on Sunday. Fire authorities warn that shifting high winds and high temperatures could put homes in danger.

Photograph by Brennan Linsley, AP Photo

Did a Careless Campfire Blow Up Into a Threatening Blaze?

Colorado’s Cold Springs fire has already consumed 606 acres and eight homes. Can the community weather a disaster that never should have happened?

On Saturday morning, Jimmy Andrew Suggs, Zackary Ryan Kuykendall, and Elizabeth Burdeshaw left their campground on the Peak to Peak Highway near Nederland, Colorado. The three had kept a fire burning in the site where they had been illegally camping on private land and reading Bibles. They left it still smoldering when they hit the road. With temperatures in the 90s and low humidity, a fire in the area soon leapt up, taking on a ravenous life of its own, engulfing the surrounding trees, and burning 257 acres and three homes by the afternoon.

By the time the wildfire, which started off Cold Springs Road, was up and running, the trio had reached a staging area in Nederland and were being interviewed by the Boulder Daily Camera as witnesses to the blaze. Suggs, hauling a backpack covered in a blue plastic tarp, and Burdeshaw, with two kittens clambering over her, spoke on video to a local reporter, telling her that they were close to where the fire started.

“It looked like the whole mountain range was on fire," said Suggs, 28. “It was crazy. We'd never seen anything like it.”

The Boulder County Sherriff’s Department traced the cause of the fire back to the campsite and arrested Suggs (who confessed “it had to been us”) and Kuykendall on Sunday, charging them with a felony, fourth-degree arson, since the fire has endangered lives, as well as trespassing and firearms violations. While formal charges will not be made until Wednesday, the two admitted in their affidavits that they camped where the wildfire began and did little to extinguish it (they did not douse it with water or dirt when they left). The county initially brought no charges against Burdeshaw since investigators determined she did not start the campfire, but the Boulder County District Attorny is now considering arson charges against her as well.

Suggs and Kuykendall are not the first charged for carelessly igniting a blaze that blew up into far more than they ever would have imagined. In 2002, U.S. Forest Service tech Terry Barton sparked the 138,000-acre Heyman Fire by starting a fire to supposedly burn a letter from her husband in a campground ring during a fire ban. She was indicted on four felony counts of arson and eventually sentenced to 15 years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service for the crime. In 1993, the state of Idaho settled for $355,000 out-of-court with an elderly couple accused of starting a fire when the car they were towing behind their motor home dragged, sent off sparks into the surrounding forest, and spread to a 6,258-acre wildfire.

By Sunday evening, the Colorado blaze had spread to 536 acres, moving inexorably east and incinerating houses and propane tanks in sudden bursts of flame as it sent up a pillar of smoke. With temperatures near 100 degrees, another fire broke out on Interstate 70 near Golden, Colorado, when garbage blown out of a truck on the freeway ignited when it hit a power line and set a dry, grassy hillside ablaze. Local fire crews soon contained that outbreak, but 200 firefighters on the ground and 12 aircraft, including helicopters with water-bucket drops and slurry bombers, had not been able to stop the Cold Springs fire. By nighttime it was still at zero-percent containment.

The Cold Springs fire burned though an active outdoor community. Jonathan Lantz, president of Boulder-based footwear, ski, and apparel brand La Sportiva was mountain biking in nearby Summit County when the fire broke out.

“I found out about the fire from Gareth Martins, a friend who was biking at the West Magnolia trails [on the other side of Boulder Canyon road from the fire] on Saturday. He texted a pic of the first smoke plume. I then brought up the Facebook Nedheads community page and had all of the information," says Lantz. "The first images were horrifying, with houses ablaze and huge black smoke plumes. My oldest kid was enduro mountain-bike racing at Keystone and two of his coaches, Sandy and Michael Buell, lost their house on the first night of the fire.”

The Buells had experienced another local disaster, the Boulder floods of 2013, and the house they lost had been built by Sandy’s father. (A GoFundMe page has been set up for the Buells and community response has been tremendous with friends, family, and anonymous donors giving cash and offers of places to stay.)

“I got a call from a friend while I was working an event at Copper Mountain on Saturday afternoon and decided to come home," says Elizabeth O’Connell, publisher of Elevation Outdoors magazine, who lives just a few miles east of the fire. “We could see a huge cloud of black smoke from our porch, but it is less dense today. But the wind has picked up and fires are hard to predict. The road closures make it very concerning to leave in case we can't get back home.”

Firefighters got lucky Sunday night, when temperatures dropped and the fire only expanded to and estimated 606 acres (later adjusted to 566 acres) and they believe they have it limited to its current footprint but it’s still active, and dangerous with the unpredictable nature of gusty winds in the Boulder foothills, although weather conditions now look favorable and officials are beginning to open roads that had been closed over the weekend. Sixty-five homes lie within the perimeter of the fire. On Wednesday, officials confirmed that eight have been destroyed; they have yet to report on the condition of the rest.

The threat of wildfires that can engulf whole communities is ever-present in Colorado and the West. The 2010 Fourmile Fire, which burned close to the current Cold Springs blaze, consumed 5,700 acres and 162 homes, fueled by vicious winds gusting from 15 to 40 miles per hour. In 2013, the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs ate up 14,280 acres and 511 homes. There are currently four active fires burning in Colorado, including the 12,000 acre Hayden Pass Fire, which doubled in size on Monday, forced 108 home evacuations, and is threatening to overrun the town of Coaldale. Thanks to rain, firefighters have just contained the 1,200 acre Buck Fire in Idaho, which officials believe to be human-caused. In May, the catastrophic Fort McMurray fire in Alberta destroyed 2,400 homes as it went on to engulf 1.5 million acres before it was declared under control earlier this month, making it the most expensive disaster in Canadian history.

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Heavy-lift helicopters dump fire retardant over the Cold Springs fire in Nederland, Colorado, near Barker Reservoir, on July 10, 2016.

That danger has not deterred those willing to live in the mountains, however, and the strength and awareness of the local community in places like Nederland has only grown as fires become more prevalent throughout the West with new record temperatures attributed to global warming and more homes being built close to where fires are most dangerous.

“Living in the mountains is always a risk, especially in heavily forested areas,” said Lantz, who is in the evacuation zone but is staying with his house for now. He is ready to leave if things get bad. “We thin the forest, maintain a fire break around the house, keep an eye on the campers and recreational shooters in the area, and maintain a close connection with all of our neighbors. Floods, fires, snowstorms, and wildlife dangers are always a consideration. I have lived in downtown D.C. as well, and I would rather take the risks of living in the mountains over the the risks associated with living in densely urban areas.”

O’Connell, who along with her husband was left homeless for months during the 2013 floods, did not end up under mandatory evaluation, but has been keeping up to date on the unpredictable blaze via community networks.

“The community meetings in Nederland have been on video for folks not able to attend in person,” she said. “We feel like we are in good hands and the resources allotted to our fire are extensive. We also have a group email system that is good for getting updates from our neighbors who have made it back up the mountain. Both my surrounding neighbors left with their horses. One made it back up canyon through the road closure.”

All that support won’t matter if the winds and fire pick up again, however, but they certainly do make it easier for residents to work as a network in the face of destruction.

“The amount of communication and support is amazing right now,” said Lantz. "After the evacuation notice went out, I called one friend and he was at our house in 15 minutes grabbing photos and passports. We have had a dozen offers for places to stay from all over Nederland and Boulder, and everyone is willing to do whatever to help anyone out.”

Boulder County instituted a fire ban Monday, but many residents have complained that it should have been in place before the fire happened, considering the weather conditions and the area’s history with catastrophic fires. Meanwhile a judge set bail at $150,000 for Suggs and $200,000 for Kuykendall, who is already on probation. The Boulder County District Attorny has hired an arson investigator to procure more evidence and will officially file charges on Wednesday.

As the summer continues to heat up across the West, the unfortunate blaze is a reminder to be sure to keep informed about all local fire bans and to only camp where it is allowed on public land. If you must have a campfire, obey campground rules and local and forest laws. Keep it in a designated ring or fire pit. Keep all campfires small. Never leave them unattended. And, most of all, be sure your fire is completely out before you leave your campsite.