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Man Who Started Hewlett Fire Could Be On The Hook For Millions

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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Investigator Rick Sallinger

DENVER (CBS4) – The Hewlett wildfire is expected to be fully contained on Tuesday.

The fire northwest of Fort Collins has burned nearly 7,700 acres, or about 12 square miles. But cooler and wet weather over the weekend helped firefighters get containment up to 87 percent. It’s cost nearly $3 million to fight the fire.

4 On Your Side Investigator Rick Sallinger learned more about how the fire started and how the Forest Service plans on trying to get restitution from the man who started it.

The camper who went to authorities and said he started it by accident has been identified as James J. Weber, a mental health counselor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He could be on the hook for millions of dollars.

Weber told the Forest Service he placed a tiny camp stove on a rock and turned away. When he turned back it was on the ground with a fire burning. He tried to stomp it out, but it expanded greatly.

Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin likens what happened to a car accident. Those who cause it are then responsible.

“The individual started a wildfire and was charged with that, but is also responsible on the civil side to pay for the restitution and rehabilitation of the land,” Segin said.

The fine and fee for the ticket Weber received totals only $325, but the restitution the government may seek could go into the millions.

In 2002 Forest Service employee Terry Barton accidently started Colorado’s largest fire. She was ordered to pay $14 million federal and tens of millions more than $25 million in state restitution, plus she spent six years in prison.

The stove Weber used was like weighs only 1.3 ounces. It’s fueled by alcohol.

“The safety feature would be the user, ultimately. It’s a very basic stove, it’s why people like it,” Devon Beam with REI said. “It has no moving parts on it. It’s very light weight. You add fuel and it’s good to go.”

Other camp stoves are larger, heavier and as a result can be more stable. Regardless, a hot flame and the ultra dry conditions can lead to a catastrophe with a price tag in the millions of dollars.

The government will present a bill to Weber. It could ask him for all or part of the money. Homeowner’s insurance could cover some of it and a schedule could be made out for the rest. Weber’s attorney said they are reviewing the matter.

Wildfire Resources

- Visit CBSDenver.com’s Wildfire Resources section.

- Read recent Wildfire stories.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

- See images from the most destructive wildfire (Fourmile Fire) and largest wildfire (Hayman Fire) in Colorado history.

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