SAN LUIS -- The Spring Fire, allegedly started June 27 five miles east of Fort Garland by 52-year-old Jesper Joergensen, reportedly exceeded 108,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 homes in Costilla and Huerfano Counties.
It was declared completely out earlier this month, but the fate of the man accused of starting it will be determined after a judge’s ruling Friday. Joergensen is in custody facing 141 counts of first-degree arson, as well as a hold by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), since he is a Danish National with an expired visa.
A preliminary hearing took most of the day Wednesday but was recessed until Friday morning to allow retired 6th Judicial District Judge Gregory G. Lyman of Durango to determine the nature of charges against Joergensen.
Lyman is presiding since all of the 12th Judicial District judges recused themselves after it was learned that a fellow court employee lost a cabin in the fire.
There was no debate at the hearing whether Joergensen started a fire at his home, a fire that devastated parts of two counties. The question is whether someone can be charged with felonious first-degree arson if he intentionally started a small fire at his residence, a fire that eventually became the third largest wildfire in Colorado history.
Joergensen reportedly first told investigators he was burning some trash that spread to nearby bushes but changed his story to say he had cooked some meat in an underground burn pit, thought the fire was out and went to sleep in a camper, awakening to the smell of smoke. He lost his camper home as the fire progressed.
Assistant 12th Judicial District Attorney Ashley McCuaig told Judge Lyman that Joergensen said in an interview that he knew it was dangerous to start the fire with a Level One Fire Ban in place forbidding all open burning. “He knowingly set a fire he knew he shouldn’t have set” and watched its rapid spread.
McCuaig compared Joergensen’s actions to “having an open fire in a tinderbox.” The defendant was eventually arrested while sitting in his pickup truck at the south side of Mountain Home Reservoir playing with his dog and watching the fire.
Representing Joergensen, Deputy Public Defender James Waldo argued that, while the defendant did set a fire near his home east of Fort Garland, he didn’t intend to cause all the damage attributed to the wildfire.
Waldo argued that arson is a felony in Colorado only if the property one burns or tries to burn is a building or occupied structure, one burns the property with the intent to defraud someone or one commits the arson intentionally or knowingly as opposed to recklessly.
Judge Lyman said in continuing the hearing that he would need to determine which contention pertains to Joergensen’s actions. He will announce his decision in a hearing at 9 a.m. Friday.