COTOPAXI, Colo. — Investigators are pursuing reports Tuesday that a barbecue grill left unattended by a group of off-road driving enthusiasts was responsible for the massive fire that has so far consumed 100 homes and more than 100 other structures.
Witnesses told authorities that several people were driving four-wheel-drive vehicles Sunday on private land near subdivisions in the hilly area near Canon City, about 130 miles southwest of Denver. The group stopped for a cookout, and investigators believe their grill was either left behind or the afternoon's high winds blew it over, spraying white-hot charcoal briquettes into the highly combustible surrounding forest.
One county official said it appeared that the individuals were not from the area.
"I just can't believe that somebody would be that irresponsible to run that barbecue grill," Fremont County Commissioner Jim Schauer said. "But I can see that happening. You drive down the street and people throw cigarettes out their car windows. They've done it for years. Even with this drought, we find people with open fires in campgrounds."
He said the overturned grill was found by investigators.
The fast-moving blaze scorched 4,400 acres of private and public land on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. More than 1,400 residents were evacuated. Tuesday's rain and cooler temperatures gave firefighters the upper hand. Officials estimated the blaze was 85% contained and would be 100% contained today. By late Tuesday, sheriff's deputies began escorting residents to the burned-out subdivisions, where scores of homes were gutted.
With the fire at bay, much of the effort shifted to determining the cause and finding those responsible.
Terry Baxter, a law enforcement officer with the Forest Service, was one of four investigators who examined the scene Tuesday. He said that the movements of residents and volunteer firefighters destroyed much of the evidence at the fire's origin.
The Iron Mountain fire has been by far the most destructive of this wildfire season and one of the worst in recent years. The fire season began months early in March with a blaze near Ruidoso, N.M., that destroyed 28 homes.
The drought has transformed forests and grassland into prime fire-fuel areas. Fire bans, in effect across most of Colorado, appear to have had only mixed results in preventing open fires in parched forests.
On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens declared a fire ban on all state land. Most of the state's national forests and national parks have banned open fires for weeks. Some public land, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, restrict smoking to within vehicles, or outside only in areas with at least 3 feet of cleared space.
Here in Fremont County, open fires were prohibited April 23. Schauer said no one has yet been ticketed or fined for fire violations.
Other counties throughout the state have imposed similar fire restrictions. Colorado has been declared a federal disaster area because of the severe drought, the worst in decades.
Multiple fires were burning elsewhere in the West on Tuesday. A fire along the Colorado-New Mexico border burned 4,800 acres and destroyed at least one home and forced the evacuation of 11 ranches and three other homes near Trinidad, Colo.
A separate fire of about 15,000 acres in the same area threatened three communities and had burned across some methane-gas fields. Fire information officer Alan Hoffmeister said few homes or people were threatened.
He said gas wells were shut down and pipelines were drained.
Here in Cotopaxi, evacuees sheltered at the local school peppered authorities with questions at a spirited town hall meeting Monday night.
"All you had to do was look at those people," Schauer said. "They weren't angry. But if the guy who started it was there, he would have probably been lynched."
Officials would not say whether they have suspects in the case. But if charges are brought in this fire, the consequences are likely to be severe.
Three teenagers were charged with felony arson in a fire near Bailey, Colo., in April that burned 2,300 acres and threatened hundreds of homes. Authorities say the boys were smoking and their discarded cigarettes started the blaze, which caused more than $2.6 million in damage.
There have been no damage estimates in the Iron Mountain fire.
"If they find the guy, he will be charged," Schauer said. "He'll have to pay."