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Wildfire investigators working hard to keep up with fires blazing across Colorado

Determining the cause of fires can help prevent them in the future.

COLORADO, USA — When a wildfire ignites, people want to know how it started. It's time-consuming and meticulous work that can take a long time. 

It can take even longer when there are more fires than there are investigators.

"Most of the fires that I investigate were human caused," said wildfire investigator Brenda Rice.

She said figuring out the cause of wildfires can take days or even years. 

"The more the population increases, the more events are going to occur and so you're stretching personnel thinner and thinner for those wildfires," she said. 

As the frequency of wildfires in Colorado is increasing, so is the need for highly specialized wildfire investigators like Rice. 

"There just are not a lot of wildfire investigators throughout the nation," said Rice. “There are lots of structural investigators, but it’s uncommon actually to see an individual who is equally skilled in both structural and wildfire. I don’t do structural and I worked with a few structural folks that do some wildfire investigation, but they are different disciplines. Those fires act differently.”

Rice is a former special agent with the U.S. Forest Service who attempted to retire in 2015, but the need for her skills has just been too great for her to stop working.

“When I retired in 2015, I was thinking I was not going to continue on in fire investigation because I had pretty much worn myself out doing it," said Rice. "I’d been worked pretty hard over the last ten years of my career all over the nation with fire investigations, and I think that lasted about two weeks after I retired before my phone started ringing.”

She said there's a strain on resources, or people who can do this work.

“It is very time consuming. It’s very detailed," said Rice. "Following the marks that the fire leaves on trees, on rocks, on bottles, and working those marks, those fire patterns back to where the fire ignited, back to that ignition area. We literally will be down on our hands and knees looking at individual blades of grass to track which way the fire progressed and then following that progression back to where it ignited.”

On Thursday, we learned that the NCAR Fire was human-caused. 

RELATED: NCAR Fire: Investigators have 'exhausted all leads' in identifying suspect

The Boulder County Sheriff's Office said that fire started a few feet off of Bear Canyon Trail. They know it was caused by someone, but they haven't been able to figure out who. 

Another fire, called the 37E fire, also has a known cause now.

RELATED: Wildland fire burning north of Lyons fully contained

Steve Pischke, Assistant Fire Chief and Fire Marshal for the Lyons Fire Protection District, said it was started by arcing on a loose connector of an electrical line. Molten copper then dropped onto light, flashy fuels like dry grass, igniting the fire that burned 114 acres.

But there are still major fires, like the Marshall Fire, that remain unsolved.

RELATED: What we know about the Marshall Fire 3 months late

RELATED: Videos show Marshall Fire started by 2 separate ignition points less than a mile apart

"We can't develop good prevention programs unless we determine what the cause of the fire was," said Rice. “That’s the main purpose for the creation and training of fire investigators is determine the origin, then determine the cause and then develop some kind of prevention program." 

Prevention and education programs like Smokey Bear.

She said drier conditions all year round, plus more people out and about create more potential for fires. 

That means a need for more wildfire investigators, like her, so we can learn from fires and potentially stop them from happening in the future. 

"Consider what you’re doing and in the conditions you’re doing it," said Rice. "If it's dry and hot and windy, consider that anything could potentially start a wildfire."

It's the small things that can have huge consequences.

Things like mowing grass and striking a rock could create a spark that causes a fire. Target shooting has started fires, as well as embers blown out by wind from a smoldering campfire. Hot exhaust pipes parked on top of dry grass could also ignite a flame. 

“Pay attention to what you’re doing," said Rice. “Remember something as tiny as the head of a pin is capable of igniting those dry grasses and pine needles and leaves on fire.”

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