MONTE VISTA — The cause of a fire that burned 17 acres and destroyed several homes on April 20 in Monte Vista was due to “trash or rubbish burning” on the east side of Absolute Shine.
Monte Vista Police Department Sgt. Michael Martinez made the announcement during a May 11 meeting with fire victims at the Outcalt Event and Conference at SLV Ski Hi Complex in Monte Vista.
Martinez, who was filling in for MVPD Chief George Dingfelder, said the department had concluded its investigation into the fire and met on Monday, May 9, with 12th Judicial District Attorney Alonzo Payne.
“We presented the case to him as we know it,” Martinez said. “At this moment in time, until he makes that ruling public the only thing, I am at liberty to say is that our investigation revealed that the fire started on the east side of the Absolute Shine business at the 800 block of Acequia Drive. The cause of that fire was due to trash or rubbish burning. The rest will be released when permitted to be released by the district attorney’s office.”
Martinez said they were waiting for supporting documents from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Colorado Department of Fire Protection and would forward those to the DA’s Office.
“We are told that those reports will be to us relatively soon,” Martinez said. “What we were told is that once all of the supporting documentation that I had talked about is delivered to his office he will hand down a decision on what potential criminal charges and liability would look like for those involved.”
The 75-minute meeting was not open to the public but video from it was posted on the City of Monte Vista’s Facebook page. This was the second such meeting organized by the city and included updates on the fire investigation and cleanup efforts. County Victims' Advocates were on hand to answer questions as well.
Sgt. Martinez added that while they had spoken with DA Payne, the department could still gather information and include it in the case. He reminded people who were impacted by the fire to fill out victim statements and submit them to the department.
“That is very important in the case. That will only make the case stronger,” Martinez said.
Martinez fielded questions about the investigation and reiterated that the DA’s Office would determine if charges would be filed. But how soon that would be, he did not know.
“From here I believe the district attorney’s office will make some type of public statement about their decision in reference to the criminal portion of the case,” Martinez said. “We did investigate this as a possible criminal case. But the decision for charges and liabilities is not up to my entity, it is up to the office of the district attorney.”
A wind-driven fire broke out shortly before noon on April 20. A total of 15 structures were burned or destroyed by the fire that covered 17 acres between West Sickles Street and Acequia Drive in north Monte Vista.
Resources from throughout the San Luis Valley and the state responded to the fire and worked well into the night containing the blaze.
The cost to fight the fire and total damage in dollars was still being determined.
Sgt. Martinez said there was no fire ban in place on April 20. The City of Monte Vista put such a ban in place following the incident and was expected to revisit this later this month.
“There was no fire ban the day of the fire. There was a Red Flag Warning issued by the National Weather Service,” Martinez said. “That Red Flag Warning was in effect from noon that day to 8 p.m. The fire would have started right
before the effect of the Red Flag Warning. The Red Flag Warning, however, was issued at 3:50 that morning, but not to be in effect until noon.”
A Red Flag Warning means warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger, according to the National Weather Service. The warning includes the following advice:
• If you are allowed to burn in your area, all burn barrels must be covered with a weighted metal cover, with holes no larger than 3/4 of an inch.
• Do not throw cigarettes or matches out of a moving vehicle. They may ignite dry grass on the side of the road and become a wildfire.
• Extinguish all outdoor fires properly. Drown fires with plenty of water and stir to make sure everything is cold to the touch. Dunk charcoal in water until cold. Do not throw live charcoal on the ground and leave it.
• Never leave a fire unattended. Sparks or embers can blow into leaves or grass, ignite a fire, and quickly spread.
Martinez was asked if people were required to alert the City of Monte Vista when burning trash or rubbish.
“I’m not aware of anything that says within the city limits there has to be a notification,” he said. “It is best practices and common courtesy to call dispatch and notify them of what is called a controlled burn that way we know where smoke is coming from and why.
“We did not get a notification of a controlled burn. There was no notification of a controlled burn in that area on that day,” Martinez said.
Monte Vista City Manager Gigi Dennis said the city has an ordinance for controlled burns.
“There is a city ordinance that says you should not have open burns of rubbish within the city limits,” Dennis said. “Also, there is a state law from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, they’re more concerned about the ozone and the smoke, and what impacts air quality.”
DA Payne has come under fire this year and a recall attempt is underway. People wondered if this would have an impact.
“I can’t tell you if it will or it won’t. There is an order for what things have to happen. We have to wait to see what he says,” Sgt. Martinez said.