A Las Animas code enforcement officer accused of starting a fire that burned nearly 3,000 acres — including homes — in a few hours on April 12 has been arrested.
Charles Gregory Champney, 67, turned himself into the Bent County Sheriff’s Office, facing three felony arson charges related to the fire that investigators say originated at the City of Las Animas limb pile and traveled east, burning two houses, including one belonging to a volunteer firefighter, and forcing the evacuation of about 200 people from the supportive living program at Fort Lyon.
The fast-moving Fort Lyon fire raced east with such ferocity that firefighters were called from across Colorado to help and management was handed over to the state. That same day another fire broke out west of Las Animas, burning about 1,700 acres, threatening Bent’s Old Fort.
According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Champney is accused of starting a fire to burn the limb pile on April 11, despite being told by a Bent County dispatcher that the county was under a red-flag weather warning and it was unsafe to burn that day.
Witnesses working near the limb pile told investigators that when they arrived at work around 6:30 a.m. on April 12, the pile was on fire and high winds were blowing out of the southeast. Firefighters responded to the pile around 11 a.m. that day and found it burning out of control and beyond the boundaries of the lot where tree limbs and other debris was stacked. Once they got the fire under control, they instructed Champney to cover the pile with dirt to make sure it was out, but had to respond to the site again at 1:30 p.m.
When investigators began their work on April 13, they found fire at the limb pile again and Champney using a loader to move limbs and other debris around as the flames grew in size and intensity. Bent County Sheriff’s Sgt. William Williams said in the arrest warrant that he instructed Champney to put out the fire and Champney said he would put the fire out when the work was done. Campney eventually began using the tractor to pour sand on the fire.
Investigators said they looked for other points of ignition and found no signs of lightning strikes or arcing power lines, tossed cigarette butts, dragging chains or overheated brakes.
The affidavit says investigators found no evidence of fraud or malicious intent, but said it was “a direct result of careless and unattended burning of limbs and debris on a high-wind, red-flag day,” when humidity was low and temperatures were high.
Champney is due to be advised June 6 in Bent County District Court, records show. He faces three counts of arson — all felonies carrying potential prison sentences — and misdemeanors alleging reckless endangerment and firing woods or prairie.