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Wildland fire investigator students train at Bear Creek Lake Park

Instructors set small grass fires and left students learning to investigate wildfires to figure out how and where the fires started.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — An open field at Bear Creek Lake Park served as a classroom for wildfire firefighters on Wednesday.

One crew from West Metro Fire learned a lesson in prescribed burns. Firefighters took turns with a drip torch to set a 10-acre grassfire.

Meanwhile, instructors nearby taught a course for future wildland fire investigators. They set small plots of grass on fire and left students with an ashy assignment.

“They’re going to crawl around in the blackness and try to figure out where the origin of this fire is and what caused the fire,” explained Matt Araki, an instructor and wildland fire investigator with West Metro Fire.

It takes patience, Araki said. Students must be determined and willing to get dirty.

“Think of a matchhead, what’s left of a matchhead when it burns,” Araki said. “That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the needle in the haystack in this whole thing.”

West Metro Fire said there are more than 5,000 wildfires ignited in Colorado every year. Humans cause most of them, but investigators don’t always determine where and how they started.

“Unfortunately, it’s not that often,” Araki said. “We will investigate it down to a general area of origin, but that’s generally about as close as we can get.”

West Metro Fire hosted the wildland fire investigations class which is accredited through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Most of 24 students are already fire investigators, Araki said. They all need to pass the course to become certified as wildland fire investigators, a job in high demand in Colorado.

“Within the last couple years, we’ve had the largest fires in Colorado history,” Araki said. “Some of them are still under investigation.”

Rich Conroy is a deputy fire marshal with South Metro Fire, but he was a student on Wednesday hoping to expand his investigative skills.

“Learning from the experience of others in the past and things to look for, that’s really the key to this whole thing,” Conroy said. “Otherwise, it just looks like a patch of black grass.”

The course will wrap up on Thursday, but students like Conroy will leave with skills they need to investigate next wildfire that sparks.

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