BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) - Two large fires in two years have been blamed on transients living in the foothills of Boulder County. They build campfires for warmth and cooking, but then they get out of hand.
In March, the Sunshine Fire cast light on the problem. It burned just outside of Boulder in Sunshine Canyon, requiring the evacuation of up to 1,000 people.
CBS4 investigator Rick Sallinger recently accompanied Boulder County Sheriff's deputies on the lookout for illegal transient campsites.
The first one featured an abandoned truck, a trailer and a fire pit.
"The rules say you can only be here 14 days at a time, then you have to move 3 miles," Deputy Jeff Brunkow explained.
That location was not far from where a year before a fire ravaged more than 500 acres and destroyed eight homes near Nederland. Two transients were arrested and charged with arson.
Traveling into the backcountry in four-wheel drive vehicles, hidden deep in the foothills along with scenes from heaven, CBS4 found trashed campsites.
Brunknow has learned to distinguish the types.
"You can tell the difference between homeless and transient. These are transients -- they don't want to carry their stuff to the next site," he said.
Brunknow and his patrol team searched the trash for identification, but the only name there was Captain Morgan on a bottle. Another deputy, Jeff Caton, said he was dismayed by what he saw.
"It makes me mad. It's disrespectful for other campers," Caton said.
If that looked bad, what CBS4 was shown next was worse. It was what could only be described as a desecration of Colorado's mountain beauty: a refrigerator, mattresses and an abandoned campsite looking like the contents of a dumpster.
"This could probably be a homeless person," Brunkow said.
But at another site, the team found campers. That was just outside of Nederland, and the deputies immediately confronted them.
"Unfortunately I'm going to need to see all of your IDs. I don't know necessarily if I'm going to write you a ticket yet or not, but you can't be camping in these spots," Brunkow told them.
Why do they come here? Some have mentioned the urban camping ban in Boulder.
"It's difficult to stay in Boulder, they shut down some of the resources," one of the campers said.
Another camper, a female, said she simply enjoys being out in nature and is careful with her campfires.
As they were cautioned, a radio call came in about a fire happening right then down the canyon. A bicyclist had spotted smoke up a steep hill just outside Boulder.
Boulder Sheriff's Fire Management Officer Jay Stalnacker led the CBS4 crew to the scene and noticed all the ingredients for trouble were right there.
"Got matches ready to go, tinder here to start this fire. This wasn't an accidental fire. This is 'I want to build a fire where there's no camping and it's illegal,'" Stalnacker said.
The burning blankets and clothes were quickly extinguished.
"This had extremely high potential to become a very large wildfire. That's not drama you guys, that's real true life stuff," Stalnacker said.
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