DENVER – A code enforcement employee for the city of Las Animas was arrested Monday on charges including arson in connection with a wildfire that destroyed two homes in April, which authorities say started after the employee conducted an illegal burn on a red flag warning day.
Charles Gregory Champney, 67, turned himself in to the Bent County Sheriff’s Office Monday after a warrant for his arrest was signed by a Bent County judge last Thursday.
He was arrested for investigation of first-degree arson; second-degree arson; and fourth-degree arson – all felonies – as well as firing woods and prairie; and reckless endangerment, according to an arrest affidavit and court records.
The Fort Lyon River Fire burned nearly 3,000 acres, destroyed two homes and their outbuildings and other property, and caused at least $389,000, as of current estimates, in damage, according to the affidavit.
The fire started and burned across the area on April 12. Bent County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. William Williams wrote the affidavit for Champney’s arrest after being called into the help with the fire around 3 p.m. that day.
Williams initially told state fire investigators their assistance wouldn’t be required, but the state took the fire over around 9 p.m. that night. But he stayed on as an investigator after initially being told the fire started at the Las Animas limb pile, a burn pile operated by the city.
The next morning, Williams went to the limb pile to start his investigation of the fire and found Champney actively burning tree limbs and other wood in the pile. He wrote in the affidavit that the fire was growing in intensity and size at the time.
Williams wrote in the affidavit he asked Champney to put out the fire and stop the burning because of the active investigation. But according to the affidavit, Champney “got upset” and said he would extinguish the fire once the pile burning was done.
“I told him, again, that I was conducting an investigation and that the Limb Pile would be shut down until further notice,” Williams wrote in the affidavit. “I sat in my marked Bent County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle and watched as Mr. Champney continued to burn the pile. At one point, Mr. Champney began to use the bucket-loader to haul loads of sand to the burning debris pile and cover up the fire.”
Williams continued his investigation into the start of the fire the day before and found that all indications pointed to it starting at the limb pile. Williams wrote in the affidavit that he called in the lead fire investigator with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to help.
On April 18, Williams and the fire investigator, Dawn Tollis, spoke with a witness, a Las Animas firefighter, and walked through the limb pile again.
The affidavit says both Williams and Tollis “came to the same conclusion that the area of origin was the Las Animas limb pile.”
Williams wrote they were also able to rule out any natural causes for the fire.
On April 20, Williams spoke with contractors who were working nearby on the day of the fire, who reported there was a debris pile burning there around 6:30 a.m. amid gusty winds.
Williams, the sergeant, also spoke with the property owners whose homes and other buildings were completely lost and had other deputies fly drones over both properties.
That week, Williams confirmed with the Bent County emergency operations manager that he believed Champney was the only person who operated the limb pile.
Williams also learned, according to the affidavit, that on April 11, the day before the fire, Champney had called dispatch to ask if he could burn at the limb pile. The dispatcher told him he could not because the area was under a red flag warning that day.
There were also red flag warnings and high wind warnings in effect on April 12, with winds gusting up to 70-80 mph in some areas. Williams wrote in the affidavit that the Las Animas Fire Department had responded to a fire at the limb pile around 11 a.m. on April 12 that had moved outside the pile’s boundaries.
Widespread Critical Fire Weather Conditions are expected across the area today due to low humidity and strong winds. Take care to avoid any actions that could cause a fire! #cowx pic.twitter.com/jT6ri1qJUI— NWS Pueblo (@NWSPueblo) April 12, 2022
Williams wrote that the fire department told Champney directly, after getting that fire under control, to cover the debris with dirt and extinguish the fire. But he wrote in the affidavit the fire department said they had to respond for another out-of-control fire at the pile again around 1:30 p.m. that day.
The fire would destroy the homes of two families, as well as federal, state and local properties. Though the current estimate sits at $389,600.57, there are still several estimates that are still ongoing.
But Williams wrote that as of Tuesday, all parts of his investigation point to the fire being caused by Champney’s burning at the fire pit.
“At this time, I have determined that the fire was a direct result of the careless and unattended burning of limbs and debris on a high-wind, Red-Flag day at the Las Animas Limb Pile,” Williams wrote in the affidavit. “It is further determined that the responsible party of the Las Animas Limb Pile it the City of Las Animas, with the person exercising control over the operation of the Las Animas Limb Pile to be Las Animas City Employee, Charles Gregory Champney.”
Williams wrote the cause of the fire was “intentional burning of various limbs and wood debris on a high-wind, Red-Flag day with low humidity and high temperatures, as well as the fire being left unattended.”
According to court records, Champney posted at $10,000 surety bond in the case after his arrest Monday. His next court appearance is set for June 6.