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Firefighter Accused Of Starting Large Elbert County Fire Appears In Court

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Alex J. Averett (credit: CBS)

Alex J. Averett (credit: CBS)

GALLERIES: COLORADO'S WORST WILDFIRES

ELBERT COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A man who authorities in Elbert County believe is responsible for starting a wildfire last summer that forced the evacuation of a town and burned several hundred acres appeared before a judge on Wednesday.

The suspect is Alex J. Averett, 19, of Elbert County, a volunteer firefighter from the Elbert Fire Protection District.

The fire chief suspected one of his own men from the start saying Averett acted strange that day. He fought the fire for several hours and then was treated for heat-related injuries and went home. Now he has admitted to starting it.

“It was a big commotion. I live about seven miles south and we were ordered to evacuate, the town was ordered to evacuate, the school did evacuate,” Wayne Hinshaw said.

The sheriff in Elbert County says they are sure they have the right man. Sheriff Shayne Heap said Averett, also known as A.J., didn’t know that investigators were looking at him as a suspect initially. He was arrested after an extensive investigation.

The County Road 102 Fire started on June 24 and was active for 18 days. It required the resources of more than 100 fire and law enforcement personnel from multiple agencies. In addition to scorching several hundred acres, it forced the evacuation of the town of Elbert and surrounding areas. The firefight was complicated by the fact that many of the state’s firefighting resources were battling other wildfires that were going on at the same time.

Heap said any time a person in public safety is accused of a crime it’s disappointing. He also said it’s unclear why Averett would want to start a fire.

“I couldn’t tell you why,” Heap said. “I don’t know what his motivation was.”

Undersheriff Joe Winkel said the Elizabeth Fire Department and Elbert County Sheriff’s Department investigation led them to Averett, who had been acting strange the day of the fire.

“Trust is put in officials, fire officials and law enforcement officials, always. When something like this comes up, it’s very difficult, however it’s not hard to prove who did this and make an arrest regardless of what their profession is,” Winkel said.

The cause and origin of the fire has been determined. Alvarett was first to call in the fire and first at the scene. At first he denied involvement, but later admitted he lit grass on fire, wanting the experience, but wanted the fire to stay smaller.

Documents indicate Averett told investigators “he realized he messed up and tried to hide it.”

Averett’s family told CBS4 they didn’t want to comment on the arrest.

The list of charges Averett tentatively faces include second degree arson, intentionally setting a wildfire, reckless endangerment and trespassing. He’s being held at the Elbert County Jail on a $50,000 bond.

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