A fire that destroyed 14 homes in rural Evansville began after smoldering debris from a grinder at the Casper landfill ignited a woodchip pile at the facility, a state report concluded.

High winds the following day spread the embers to the surrounding prairie, sparking the Cole Creek Fire, which burned over 10,000 acres and temporarily displaced more than 1,000 people in October.

Landfill workers tried twice to extinguish the smoldering debris from the grinder, first with water extinguishers and later by stomping on them, according to the report, which was produced by the Wyoming Department of Fire Prevention and Electrical Safety. 

The debris was pushed back into the woodchip pile after the second attempt by employees who believed the debris was no longer burning. However, the debris was still smoldering and ignited wood in the brush pile. Firefighters responded and kept watch overnight but lost control of the fire the following afternoon.

The report, which the Star-Tribune obtained Monday using a public records request, concludes the fire was an accident. The document does not address whether any workers at the landfill acted negligently.

The purpose of the report was to investigate the origin and cause of the fire, said Eric Siwik, a fire investigator for the state's Fire Prevention Department. Negligence would have to be addressed by attorneys, he said.

“Obviously, there is a little bit of negligence there,” Siwik said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s just, how much and could it have been avoided.”

The 66-page report contains interviews with firefighters and landfill employees, a log of calls made to dispatchers at the time of the fire, photos and diagrams of the scene and a report by a Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agent. Names of landfill workers were blacked out, while firefighters’ names were not. The report was completed Dec. 2.

Casper Mayor Charlie Powell said that now the report is out, he'll be discussing with the city's fire chief whether any procedural changes need to be made at the landfill. 

Powell also said the city's insurance company, Wyoming Association of Risk Management, will be handling any claims from people who aren't happy with the way the fire was handled. 

"They certainly can take action, and we'll let the courts determine what they think is appropriate," Powell said.

Evansville resident Danny Clark, who lost his home in the fire, said he contacted the Spence Law Firm in Jackson about filing a lawsuit. The Clarks decided to forego the suit after finding out they would be awarded $500,000 at most, if they prevailed. Clark said his insurance company, Farm Bureau, has informed him it will file a claim. 

Clark said he wants someone to take responsibility for the fire. 

"Stop saying it's an accident because it could have been avoided," he said. 

State Rep. Kendell Kroeker, who also lost his house in the fire, declined to comment on the report's findings. He said his family will not be filing a lawsuit. 

"My thought is, I've got insurance and they've taken care of us and if I sue the city, all I'm doing is causing taxpayers to pay for the mistake," Kroeker said. "Whether or not my insurance company will read the report and sue the city, that's their decision and doesn't have anything to do with us." 

The Cole Creek Fire began Oct. 11 after flames crossed the landfill road and spread quickly because of strong winds. Crews extinguished the fire five days later. People living in the area were forced to evacuate for two days while more than 100 firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Helicopters joined ground crews by dumping water from the North Platte River on the flames.

The blaze ultimately destroyed 14 homes and several outbuildings. No one was hurt in the fire, but countless pets and livestock were lost.

Authorities have since October said the fire spread from the woodchip pile to the surrounding prairie. However, the report offers new details regarding how the woodchips ignited.

According to statements made by a landfill worker who operates the grinder, it was not unusual for small fires to occur due to the amount of friction involved. The machine is used to grind wood from the landfill's brush pile.

The worker told investigators a fire started in the grinder about noon Oct. 10. The employee sprayed water on the fire and then stirred the material by hand until it was extinguished. At about 4 p.m., the worker noticed smoldering debris on the grinder. He again sprayed water on it and mixed the materials until the smoldering stopped. He and another employee then cleaned up the area by pushing debris from around the grinder into the brush pile, also called a slash pile.

The worker “surmised that it was possible that some smoldering debris could have been pushed into the pile, without anyone noticing any smoke.” He also said that was “the most likely cause of the slash pile fire, after the wind came up.”

Another landfill employee told investigators he left work at about 5 p.m. and did not see any indication of fire or smoldering debris. That employee was contacted about an hour later because a fire had broken out at the landfill. When he returned, he saw the brush pile was burning.

Firefighters were dispatched to the landfill at 5:35 p.m. and found a brush pile and wood chip pile on fire. About 300,000 gallons of water were used on the fire but had little effect. Equipment was brought in to tear apart the piles. Firefighters remained at the landfill overnight to work the fire and patrol the area for hot spots.

The firefighters reported about 11:30 the following morning that the piles were heating up and the wind was increasing. More engines responded to help. A small fire began outside of the landfill road but was quickly contained. Another fire broke out on Station Road, and firefighters were unable to gain control of it.

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Follow crime and courts reporter Lillian Schrock on Twitter @lillieschrock.


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