Started by an illegal campfire on June 27, 2018, the Spring Creek Fire raced across 108,045 acres of forested foothills in southern Colorado, near La Veta Pass on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley. By the time it was fully contained on September 10, the Spring Creek blaze was the third-largest wildfire in state history. It destroyed 141 structures and cost more than $32 million to fight.
The day after it started, authorities arrested Jesper Joergensen, a Danish national who started the fire. He was charged with 141 counts of arson, one for each structure lost. As of September 2020, Joergensen has yet to stand trial, having been declared “incompetent” and undergone mental health treatment.
2018 Fire Season
Colorado experienced severe drought in the spring and summer of 2018. In June the National Weather Service reported “well above normal temperatures” across the state, combined with “well below normal precipitation.” These conditions were similar to the 2002 fire season—the worst season in state history—when some 4,600 fires burned a total of more than 926,000 acres. The 2018 season turned out to be the state’s second-worst, with some 1,500 fires burning more than 475,000 acres. By the end of June, when the Spring Creek Fire was lit, the 416 Fire near Durango, about 150 miles west of La Veta Pass, had already burned more than 40,000 acres.
That summer, Costilla County, on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, joined Durango among the hottest places in the state. From June through August, the area saw temperatures land between three and five degrees above average. In June a number of gusty days made for perfect fire conditions.
On June 27, fifty-two-year-old Jesper Joergensen lit a fire near his camper home about five miles east of Fort Garland. The exact circumstances remain murky. Joergensen, who had recently posted anarchist and other incoherent rants on social media, first told police that he was burning trash, then later said a cooking fire he thought was extinguished had set the surrounding sagebrush ablaze. He claimed to have tried to put the fire out with towels and a blanket, sustaining burns in the process. Joergensen called to report the fire after seeing that it was out of control.
The lack of witnesses and Joergensen’s troubled mental state—he was later declared incompetent by a court and received mental health treatment—hampered authorities’ efforts to understand how the fire began. Regardless, the ravenous flames burned through the vegetation around the camper and tore up the western flank of the Sangre de Cristo foothills on the south side of La Veta Pass. Officials eventually named the conflagration the Spring Creek Fire as it moved east toward Spring Creek, a tributary of the Cucharas River west of the Spanish Peaks.
By the next day, the Spring Creek Fire had pushed east and north across some 4,000 acres. More than 2,000 people were evacuated from the foothills, with some heading to shelters in Fort Garland and Walsenburg. Between 80 and 100 firefighters were already battling the blaze, but gusty winds and rough terrain made their jobs difficult.
Things only got worse overnight, when the fire exploded to 24,000 acres and jumped across US Highway 160 on La Veta Pass. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) closed the highway as the fire pushed into Huerfano County. To the south, mandatory evacuation orders were issued to residents along State Highway 12, west of the Spanish Peaks. CDOT closed Highway 12 between the towns of La Veta and Cuchara.
Fight for Containment
By July 1, just four days after it began, the Spring Creek Fire had grown to 41,000 acres with zero containment. The next day it made another huge push, to 56,000 acres. More than 550 firefighters were involved, supported by about three dozen aircraft, including fixed-wing air tankers and National Guard helicopters. Crews dug protective lines around the town of Cuchara and other nearby communities on the fire’s eastern flank. Firefighters faced a slew of disadvantages, including unrelenting hot and dry weather, the remote location of the blaze, and the erratic activity of the flames, some of which flared to more than 300 feet high. In some places, the fire was moving downhill and against the wind, making suppression all but impossible.
Over the next few days, the number of firefighters battling the Spring Creek Fire more than doubled, but crews could do little but create defensive positions as the fire continued its explosive growth. On July 5, it passed the 100,000-acre mark, with 132 structures destroyed, including more than 100 houses in the Forbes Park development east of Fort Garland and another 20 houses in the Paradise Acres subdivision.
Finally, in the second week of July, wetter weather arrived to slow the fire’s spread and allow firefighters to increase containment. More than 1,000 firefighters worked the northern edge of the blaze, with 600 posted near the southern flank. With help from the weather, as well as a huge, pine-grinding machine called “The Masticator,” crews were able to achieve 83 percent containment on the Spring Creek Fire by July 11. While fire crews often use bulldozers and other heavy equipment to clear fuels, the Masticator greatly expedited the tree-removal process, allowing for faster containment. Rain continued to fall intermittently on the fire until it was fully contained on September 10.
The monsoon rains that arrived in mid-July helped douse the Spring Creek Fire, but they also raised concerns about flooding. Wildfires typically heighten the potential for severe flooding afterward because they burn plants and other material that would otherwise soak up water and hold down soils. Without plants and roots, soils fall into and raise riverbeds, making them more prone to flooding. After the Spring Creek Fire, state and federal officials warned of a “100 percent chance” of flooding in the communities of Walsenburg and La Veta, both of which are located downhill from the burned area. Flash-flood warnings in the burned area went out as early as July 16, before the fire was fully contained.
In Huerfano County, hundreds of volunteers and workers from multiple agencies cleared river channels in La Veta and Walsenburg in preparation for floods. The county managed to avoid extensive damage despite thirteen flash-flood warnings and some minor flooding in 2018. The potential for extreme flooding in Huerfano and Costilla Counties remains high.
Meanwhile, Joergensen, the alleged arsonist, has a trial date set for mid-September 2020. The delay was due to Joergensen being declared incompetent after irrational behavior at a previous hearing. He was ordered to undergo mental health treatment before standing trial.
In its conditions, size, and behavior, the Spring Creek Fire was reminiscent of the 2002 Hayman Fire, while its property destruction was on a scale similar to the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. Like those earlier fires, the Spring Creek blaze exposed a number of troubling factors contributing to the increasing rate of large fires across the American West, including climate change, development in fire-prone areas, and human-set fires.
While the Spring Creek Fire was still burning, wildfire policy expert and Pomona College professor Char Miller pointed to a “changing climate” as “the underlying driver” of huge blowups like Spring Creek and other recent fires across the West. He noted that the size and intensity of recent fires in an extended fire season is changing some of Colorado’s landscapes “from forest to grassland.” Studies have since confirmed that some forests burned in recent fires may never recover.
The large amount of property damage in the Spring Creek Fire hints at another factor fueling the destructive nature of modern wildfires. A 2018 study noted that since 1990, construction of new houses in fire-prone areas across the nation increased by 41 percent, representing “the fastest-growing land use type” in the country. Houses represented the majority of structures damaged or destroyed during the Spring Creek Fire. Many of them were not permanent residences but seasonal or vacation homes, including a sizable portion of those lost in the Paradise Acres neighborhood.
The Spring Creek Fire’s origins also attest to the growing number of human-set fires across the warming American West. In 2017 federal data showed that people started nine out of every ten fires in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota that year. In response to the terrible 2018 fire season, the Colorado legislature raised the penalties for unattended campfires from a $50 fine to a maximum penalty of $750 and six months in jail.