He called 911. That was more than two weeks ago.
As of Friday, the fire, now known as the Spring Fire, is still burning and has spread to more than 108,000 acres of land in southern Colorado. It has destroyed 141 homes and other properties. The Spring Fire is the biggest of a dozen wildfires now burning across the dry state; it’s also one of at least three wildfires that authorities believe were caused by a crime.
Joergensen is now facing 141 counts of first-degree arson — one count for every property destroyed. Each is punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Joergensen, a 52-year-old Danish national who authorities said is in the United States on an expired visa, said he does not know what caused the fire, according to an arrest affidavit.
The fire began on June 27. Joergensen said he woke up from a nap that afternoon and saw fire burning just 20 feet away from a fire pit he used for cooking the day before. He ran toward the fire with a blanket and tried to smother it, he told authorities, but the flames touched his skin, causing minor burns on his chest and right leg.
By the time firefighters arrived in Costilla County, the blaze had fully engulfed trees and vegetation, and black smoke could be seen from a distance.
As investigators with the Costilla County Sheriff’s Office asked Joergensen what had happened, his hands were shaking and he seemed nervous, according to the affidavit. At first, he said that he had been burning trash, but authorities said he quickly changed his story and said he had been grilling. He built a two-foot-deep fire pit the day before, on June 26, and placed a grate on top of it to grill meat, he told authorities. He covered the pit to put the flames out after he was done eating, and a few hours later, Joergensen said he checked the pit and didn’t see any smoke.
He went on about his day, and didn’t use the fire pit for anything else, the affidavit says.
When asked if he used any water to put the fire out, Joergensen said he did not have any, but he believed he did not need it because he had already extinguished the fire, the affidavit says. He also said he did not think the fire he used to cook his meal caused the massive Spring Fire blaze.
A fire ban has been in place in Costilla County, but Joergensen told authorities that he did not know about it. He later said he no longer wished to talk to investigators and asked for an attorney. His lawyers did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
No injuries or deaths have been reported.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told investigators that Joergensen is in the country illegally because his visa had expired, the affidavit says.
Authorities found two rifles in Joergensen’s vehicle, a Chevrolet truck. It is unclear if they found flammable liquid or other ignition devices.
At least 12 wildfires have been burning across Colorado’s dry forested areas. Spring Fire spokesman Mark Thibideau said that blaze is 91 percent contained as of Friday, meaning a huge portion of it is no longer spreading.
“The whole south end of the fire is looking extremely well right now. We have containment all along the southern edge of the fire, the east and most of the north as well,” Thibideau said. “There’s just a small chunk in the northwest corner that’s considered uncontrolled fire line right now. And the reason for that is because it’s so darn steep.”
Near Colorado Springs, three young men were charged with arson after authorities said they caused a fire that damaged the homes of eight families, the Denver Post reported. In Basalt, Colo., not far from Aspen, authorities said a man and a woman are facing arson charges for starting a fire using tracer bullets, the Post reported.