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Why Colorado's Black Forest wildfire is now being called a crime scene

Authorities are treating Colorado's Black Forest wildfire as the site of a criminal probe. At issue: the start of the fire and the deaths of two people as they were apparently trying to evacuate their house.

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"You kind of look at the burn patterns and work your way backwards. Kind of tracking the footprints the fire left as it moved away from the point of origin back to the point of origin. Once you get to the point of origin, you look for clues: cigarette butts, footprints, tire tracks," he told CBS News

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Asia Editor

Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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Determining the origin of wildfires is notoriously tricky. The cause of the state’s second-most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned nearly a year ago, still hasn’t been determined, the Associated Press reports. Wind, other weather, tire marks, and first-responder tracks can easily cover traces of a fire’s cause. 

But criminal cases have resulted from wildfire investigations, especially in the past five years. In 2009, Raymond Lee Oyler was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for arson charges in a string of 2006 California wildfires, including the Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters.

In January of this year, a second arsonist, Rickie Lee Fowler, was sentenced to death for a 2003 fire in California's San Bernardino Mountains, which burned 91,000 acres and about 1,000 houses and was blamed for the deaths of five people. 

 The past 60 years have seen an evolution of much stricter penalties for arsonists, writes John N. Maclean, the author of several books on wildfires, in a High Country News article.

“The conviction of Raymond Oyler for murder would have been unthinkable a century or even a few decades ago,” he writes, referencing a 1953 wildfire where the arsonist, who admitted starting a fire to get a job on the fire crew, was charged with two counts of willful burning and spent just three years in prison. That fire killed 15 firefighters.

In the years since, arson sentences have gotten progressively stronger, he writes. Terry Lynn Barton, a seasonal Forest Service worker, served six years in prison for starting Colorado’s Hayman fire, which burned 138,000 acres and 133 houses in 2002. And Mr. Oyler became the first arsonist sentenced to death.

“The Oyler case stands as a warning to every would-be fire starter: Tolerance for the torch has gone the way of the Old West,” Mr. Maclean writes.

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