LITTLETON, Colo. – A brush fire that threatened the homes of thousands of people in Highlands Ranch nearly one year ago was started accidentally by Englewood police officers who were using a nearby shooting range without a reservation and against the range’s rules.
While no homes were damaged by the fire, it burned about 46 acres surrounding the Highlands Ranch Law Enforcement Training Foundation (HRLETF) facilities after starting on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 15, and prompting about 3,000 pre-evacuation notices be sent to area residents. The fire was not fully contained until that Sunday.
At the time, a ranking law enforcement source told Contact7 Investigates that the fire had started at the shooting range.
But a document obtained by Contact7 Investigates and conversations with Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who is the chairman of the HRLETF, and Englewood Police Chief John Collins, show that Collins accepted responsibility for his officers causing the fire and that the city of Englewood paid at least some of the costs of fighting the fire back to Douglas County through the training center.
Spurlock wrote to Collins in January notifying him that the investigation into the fire showed that a group of Englewood officers had been at the range that afternoon firing 40mm munitions typically used for crowd control. But Spurlock’s letter says that one of the officers accidentally fired an incendiary round, which exploded and sparked the fire.
But Spurlock wrote in the letter that the officers hadn’t scheduled a reservation to use the range and used those specific rounds without getting permission as required—both in violation of HRLETF rules.
“Ultimately, the investigation determined the rules were not properly followed,” Spurlock said in an interview with Contact7 Investigates. He additionally said that the range would typically deploy fire suppression equipment ahead of time if it is notified that officers have reserved the range.
Firefighters from Littleton Fire, South Metro Fire, Douglas County and two state hand crews battled the fire, and a helicopter was brought in by Douglas County as well. The letter from Spurlock says that firefighting costs topped $14,000.
And while Englewood police ultimately took responsibility for the fire, Collins told Contact7 Investigates in an interview that his officers tried to notify the range and reserve a session but that their calls were not answered.
“Apparently the number that they call or the individual they called was not there,” Collins said.
He additionally said that he was not aware there was fire suppression equipment at the facility. Nonetheless, he said he takes responsibility for his officers’ actions.
“Never at any point did we deny that we started the fire,” Collins said. Whether it was accidental or not, we were responsible for this fire. … This is something that we own.”
Collins said that because the fire was accidentally caused he did not discipline the officers who started the fire. But ultimately, Douglas County was paid $1,902 by the HRLETF to recoup firefighting costs. The city of Englewood then reimbursed the HRLETF for that money, the letter and financial records show.
Collins and Spurlock both said that while it might be an awkward situation, with one head of a law enforcement agency having to call out another, both were committed to working together and remaining accountable.
“Obviously it’s one of those things that are difficult … but it’s our responsibility to call out folks,” Spurlock said. “And I hope I never have to do it again.”
Collins said he saw positives come out of the incident and the discussion with Spurlock.
“I think so. That’s what chiefs and sheriffs do when things go bad,” Collins said. “You fix them and make sure they don’t happen again.”
Watch the full story on Denver7 News at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.
Denver7's Blair Miller contributed to this report.