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'Careless' burning by code officer sparked Fort Lyon River fire that destroyed 2 homes, affidavit says

The Bent County Sheriff's Office arrested a Las Animas code enforcement officer in a fire that burned 2,900 acres and two homes last month.

BENT COUNTY, Colo. — A Las Animas code enforcement officer who was burning a limb pile when the area was under a Red Flag Warning is accused of starting a fire last month that destroyed two homes and other property, an arrest affidavit from the Bent County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) says.

Charles Champney, 67, was arrested Monday on suspicion of starting the Fort Lyon River wildfire that burned more than 2,900 acres last month, according to the BCSO.

He was arrested on suspicion of:

  • First-degree arson
  • Second-degree arson
  • Fourth-degree arson
  • Setting a fire in woods/prairie
  • Reckless endangerment

On April 11, according to the affidavit, Champney called county dispatch and asked permission to burn the limb pile, which is owned and operated by the city of Las Animas. The deputy he spoke with declined to give permission and explained that the area was under a Red Flag Warning.

The next day on April 12, the Las Animas Fire Department responded to the limb pile at about 11 a.m. for a fire that was "out of control" and had moved outside the boundaries of the limb pile, the affidavit says.

Once it was under control, according to the affidavit, members of the fire department "directly" told Champney to cover any burning debris in the limb pile with dirt to extinguish it.

At about 1:30 p.m. that same day the fire department returned to the area because the fire was once again "out of control," the affidavit says.

At about 9:30 a.m. on April 13, an investigator with the BCSO responded to the limb pile as part of his investigation. At the time, he encountered Champney burning a pile of limbs and wood debris, the affidavit says.

RELATED: Fire burns within feet of National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado

Champney was using a bucket loader to move the debris around and the fire was "growing in size and intensity," the affidavit says. The investigator wrote in the affidavit that he instructed Champney to put the fire out and "cease burning" until the investigation was complete.

Champney became upset when told that, and according to the affidavit, said, "he would put it out when he was done."

From his patrol car, the investigator watched as Champney continued to work the fire. At one point, Champney used the bucket loader to haul loads of sand to the pile and cover it up, the affidavit says.

Based on the patterns of burning, charring, and staining, the investigator said he concluded the fire originated in the limb pile. He also noted that he had ruled out any natural causes such as lightning because there were no strikes within 50 miles of Las Animas in the 24 hours before the fire.

The investigator wrote in the report that the fire was the "direct result" of "careless and unattended burning of limbs on a high-wind Red Flag day."

Champney was arrested and released from custody on Monday, according to BCSO records.

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