Doves, heartbreak and hope on 20th anniversary of Columbine High massacre

A man looks at a line of crosses commemorating those killed in the Columbine High School shooting on the 20th anniversary of the attack in Littleton, Colorado, U.S., April 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Keith Coffman

LITTLETON, Colo. (Reuters) – A week-long series of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre culminated on Saturday with a remembrance ceremony celebrating the lives of the 13 victims slain in the rampage.

On April 20, 1999, two Columbine students, just three weeks shy of graduation, stormed the suburban Denver school armed with shotguns and semiautomatic weapons, fatally shooting 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide.

Addressing hundreds of people gathered at Saturday’s service in a park next to the school, Dawn Anna, mother of slain student Lauren Townsend, spoke on behalf of all the families of the victims about their sense of loss.

“Our hearts have huge holes in them, but our hearts are bigger than they were 20 years ago,” Anna said.

Patrick Ireland, whose fall out of a school library window into the arms of firefighters, which became one of the iconic images of the massacre, spoke of his long physical and emotional recovery.

“You’re a victim only if you allow yourself to become one,” Ireland said.

Thirteen doves were released at the end of the ceremony.

For the relatives of those killed, April 20 evokes a mix of emotions from sorrow and anguish to fond memories of loved ones.

Betty Shoels, the aunt of murdered student Isaiah Shoels, said her 18-year-old nephew was a fun-loving athlete who was always smiling, despite feeling out of place as one of the school’s few African-American students.

“What I miss most is his laugh,” Shoels told Reuters. ”He was just a great kid who loved to joke.”

This year’s remembrances were marred this week when a Florida teenager, who authorities said was “obsessed” with Columbine, traveled to Colorado where she died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot.

Evan Todd was a sophomore at Columbine two decades ago when he was wounded in the school library, where 10 of the students were killed. He said whenever he hears of school shootings or other tragedies somehow linked to Columbine, it reminds him that he was “part of something so gruesome and so public.”

He often recalls his football teammate Matt Kechter, who was shot dead just a few feet away from him.

“Sometimes I wonder what Matt would be doing now, what is life would be like,” said Todd, 35, who is the father of a one-year-old son.

He credits his family and Christian faith for getting him through the months following the tragedy.

“I’m just thankful that I survived,” he said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Teen ‘infatuated’ with Columbine found dead in Colorado

FILE PHOTO: People visit the Columbine memorial after teens kicked off a voter registration rally, a day ahead of the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, U.S., April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Florida teenager believed to be armed and “infatuated” with the Columbine massacre was found dead by authorities in Colorado after she traveled to the state days before the 20th anniversary of the school attack, according to CNN and other media reports.

Sol Pais, identified as an 18-year-old woman from Surfside, Florida, who authorities called “extremely dangerous,” was found

in Clear Creek County, a local CBS affiliate reported. CNN, citing law enforcement sources, reported that she was dead when authorities found her.

Pais was “no longer a threat to the community,” Patricia Billinger, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s Public Safety Department told Reuters. She declined to elaborate.

Clear Creek County is about 40 miles (64 km) west of Columbine High School, where two teenaged male students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher on April 20, 1999, before committing suicide.

Area schools were closed on Wednesday as FBI agents, Jefferson County deputies and Colorado state troopers searched for Pais.

Pais flew from Miami to Denver on Monday, where she bought a pump-action shotgun and ammunition, FBI Special Agent in Charge Dean Phillips said at a news conference late on Tuesday. Denver is adjacent to Jefferson County.

Some 20 to 30 officers were searching for her near the Echo Lake Campground in the Arapaho National Forest on Wednesday morning, CBS4 in Denver reported.

A spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools said that Pais was student at Miami Beach Senior High School and that there was no threat to schools within the district.

On Tuesday, an FBI bulletin said authorities lacked probable cause for a formal arrest but that law enforcement should detain Pais for a mental-health evaluation.

The sheriff’s Twitter post, which included two photos of Pais, said she was dressed in a black T-shirt, camouflage pants and black boots.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, and additional writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Larry King and Bill Berkrot)

Millions in central U.S. brace for ‘life-threatening’ blizzards, potential floods

Floodwaters flow along a street in Pullman, Washington, U.S. in this still image taken from April 9, 2019 social media video. ELLIE STENBERG/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A blizzard hitting the U.S. Rockies on Wednesday was forecast to move eastward over the next day, threatening to bring new flooding to the Plains states including parts of South Dakota and Missouri that are still recovering from last month’s inundation.

High spring temperatures will give way to heavy snow, gale-force winds and life-threatening conditions across a swathe of the central United States running from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, according to the National Weather Service.

“This is potentially a life-threatening storm,” Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center in Maryland, said Wednesday.

A sign for shops is seen as floodwaters flow along a street in Pullman, Washington, U.S. in this still image taken from April 9, 2019 social media video. ELLIE STENBERG/via REUTERS

A sign for shops is seen as floodwaters flow along a street in Pullman, Washington, U.S. in this still image taken from April 9, 2019 social media video. ELLIE STENBERG/via REUTERS

A cyclone last month dropped heavy rains over that region, causing extensive flooding along the Missouri River and more than $3 billion in damage to property and crops in Nebraska and Iowa.

Pueblo, Colorado, hit 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) on Tuesday, but will drop down to 25F (minus 4C) by early Thursday. Similar temperatures are forecast in Denver.

The storm is expected to bring blinding, heavy wet snow across the region, likely downing trees and causing widespread power outages, widespread road closures and making driving treacherous, Burke said.

“It’s slow moving. It won’t push farther east until Friday,” he said.

Some areas of western Minnesota and southeast South Dakota were expected to get up to 30 inches of wet, heavy snow, the NWS said.

Two factors may limit the flooding effect, forecasters said. Thawed ground will be able to absorb more precipitation than last month’s frozen ground and a fall of heavy snow rather than rain will slow the runoff process.

Nearly 500 flights were canceled at Denver International Airport on Wednesday, about a quarter of its total schedule, according to FlightAware.com, an airline tracking website.

Airport officials said they had snow-removal crews in place.

The coming storm was expected to exacerbate flooding along the Missouri River in areas where dozens of levees were breached in March, exposing communities to future surges. The river was not expected to crest in areas of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri until between three to five days after the storm.

The storm is expected to weaken and push off into the Great Lakes area and northern Michigan on Friday, bringing more rain and snow, the weather service said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Alison Williams and Susan Thomas)

Colorado trooper killed as ‘Bomb Cyclone’ unleashes snow, high winds

A policeman talks to a driver as snow clogs the roads in Lone Tree, Colorado, U.S. in this March 13, 2019 handout photo. City of Lone Tree, Colo./Handout via REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A late-winter blizzard slammed U.S. Rocky Mountain and Plains states on Wednesday, unleashing a “bomb cyclone” of high winds and drifting snow that stranded motorists, canceled more than 1,300 airline flights and was blamed for the death of a Colorado state trooper.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis declared a state of emergency due to the storm and said he had activated the state National Guard to assist in search and rescue operations.

Corporal Daniel Groves, 52, of the Colorado State Patrol is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters March 13, 2019. Colorado State Police/Handout via REUTERS

Corporal Daniel Groves, 52, of the Colorado State Patrol is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters March 13, 2019. Colorado State Police/Handout via REUTERS

The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas as schools and businesses were closed and local authorities urged residents to hunker down.

Meteorologists referred to the storm as a “bomb cyclone,” a winter hurricane that forms when the barometric pressure drops 24 millibars in 24 hours.

“So far, we have received 110 traffic crash reports and #Denver remains on #AccidentAlert,” the Denver Police Department said on Twitter.

“If you absolutely have to head out, please be cautious- it’s still #snowgoing out there. Turn your lights on, set the wipers on high; don’t forget the extra stopping distance. #BombCyclone”

The Colorado State Patrol said one of its troopers, Corporal Daniel Groves, was struck by a car that veered out of control on Interstate 76 and he died of his injuries a short time later at Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton.

At the time, Groves, 52, was on the scene of another accident in which a vehicle had slid off the roadway, the state patrol said. It added that “high speed in poor driving conditions” was being investigated in connection with the crash that caused his death.

A general view of the blizzard in Greeley, Colorado, U.S. March 13, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit TWITTER @PHOTOWILLG/via REUTERS

A general view of the blizzard in Greeley, Colorado, U.S. March 13, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit TWITTER @PHOTOWILLG/via REUTERS

FLIGHTS DELAYED, CANCELED

All six runways at Denver International Airport were shuttered, along with the main road into the airport due to drifting, blowing snow. An airport spokesman said 1,339 flights had been canceled as of mid-afternoon. Colorado Springs Municipal Airport canceled all incoming flights.

All school districts in the seven-county Denver metropolitan were closed, along with most city and state government offices and many businesses.

Officials in El Paso County, Colorado, said some 1,100 motorists were stranded on Interstate 25 near Colorado Springs.

Utility company Xcel Energy said about 130,000 commercial and residential customers in Colorado were without power due to high winds and wet heavy snow.

“Limited visibility has affected our ability to respond,” Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said, adding it was unclear when power would be restored.

The police department in Northglenn, Colorado, tweeted a picture of a large tree that fell on a home, breaking through the roof. It was not immediately clear if anyone was hurt.

Interstate 70 was closed east of Denver to the Kansas state line and sections of Interstate 25 were also shut down, according to Colorado Department of Transportation.

“They typically do get strong systems this time of the year in that part of the country, but this one is maybe a notch stronger than what you typically see,” said meteorologist Marc Chenard of the weather service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Forecasters said they expect winds of up to 70 miles per hour (110 kph) to sweep across a wide area of states to the south, including New Mexico and parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

“Pretty much through much of the Plains there’s going to be a threat for potential power outage issues,” Chenard said.

More than 100,000 electric power customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were left in the dark early on Wednesday after a line of rain squalls associated with the system moved through the area.

The storm was also expected to bring heavy rain to areas of eastern Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota that already have a good deal of snow on the ground, raising the threat of river flooding, the weather service said.

The storm system is expected to weaken by Thursday as it moves over the Tennessee River Valley, bringing mostly rain from Michigan southward to the Gulf Coast and some remaining snow only in the far northern parts of the country, the weather service said.

(This story corrects name of Colorado governor in second paragraph)

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; additional reporting Peter Szekely in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

Denver union, officials to reconvene as schools strike enters second day

FILE PHOTO: The Continental Divide is seen in the background behind the downtown city skyline in Denver, Colorado, U.S., November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – Thousands of Denver public school teachers are expected to strike Tuesday, disrupting classes for more than 90,000 students for a second day as union and school district officials resume talks that broke down at the weekend.

In the latest of several major strikes to hit the U.S. public school system, the teachers are seeking pay hikes and a new salary structure.

Statewide stoppages affected West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona last year, and Los Angeles teachers reached a deal last month to reduce class sizes and raise salaries by 6 percent, ending a six-week walkout.

Talks in Denver broke down on Saturday night, triggering the first walkout by teachers in the city since 1994 on Monday.

It disrupted classes for some 92,000 students but district officials kept all 207 schools open Monday, staffed by substitute teachers and administration personnel, and are expected to do so as long as the strike continues.

Denver’s 5,650-member teachers’ union says a new pay scheme has sacrificed dependable cost-of-living wage hikes for limited bonuses offered for teaching in high-poverty areas and classes with problematic students.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district had proposed a pay increase of nearly 11 percent next year. Robert Gould, lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s bargaining team, said the district was inflating the value of the offer.

The two sides are scheduled to reconvene for talks at 10:00 am on Tuesday, when thousands of teachers are again expected to brave freezing weather to picket outside schools before a rally at the city’s Civic Center Park.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Jann Tracey in Denver and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by John Stonestreet)

Colorado jogger fends off, kills mountain lion on rural trail

FILE PHOTO: A mountain lion makes its way through fresh snow in the foothills outside of Golden, Colorado April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado jogger fought off a mountain lion in the foothills of Horsetooth Mountain on Monday, suffering severe bites before he killed the wild animal in self-defense, authorities said.

The man, who was not identified, was jogging on a trail on the West Ridge of the Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a mountain park about 66 miles northwest of Denver, officials said.

A juvenile mountain lion attacked him from behind, biting and clawing the man’s face, back, legs and arms, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources said in a joint release, late on Monday.

It was not disclosed how the jogger killed the animal, and no one from the CPW or the Larimer DNR was available for comment early Tuesday.

The runner was able to get to a local hospital, officials said. His injuries were serious but not life-threatening, they said.

The animal’s body was recovered near the trail and the jogger’s dropped possessions and taken to a CPW lab for a necropsy, officials said.

“The runner did everything he could to save his life,” said Mark Leslie, CPW Northeast Regional Manager. “In the event of a lion attack, you need to do anything in your power to fight back, just as this gentleman did.”

Lion attacks have caused fewer than 20 fatalities in the United States in the past 100 years. Sixteen known attacks have occurred in Colorado since 1990, officials said.

“Mountain lion attacks are not common in Colorado and it is unfortunate that the lion’s hunting instincts were triggered by the runner,” said Ty Petersburg, area wildlife manager for the CPW in a statement. “This could have had a very different outcome.”

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, writing by rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Larry King)

Colorado prosecutors set to charge man for murdering family

FILE PHOTO - Chrisopher Watts, 33, arrested on suspicion of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters, in Frederick, Colorado, U.S., is shown in this handout photo provided August 16, 2018. Weld County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – Colorado prosecutors said they plan to formally file murder charges on Monday against a man accused of killing his pregnant wife and their two young daughters, days after he told police they went missing and pleaded on TV for their safe return.

Christopher Watts, 33, has been held without bond in the Weld County jail since his arrest last week for the murders of his pregnant wife Shanann Watts, 34 and two daughters, Celeste, 3, and Bella, 4.

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke will formally file charges against Watts on Monday and seek the release of an arrest affidavit, which has been under seal, that lays out details of the crime, his spokeswoman Krista Henery said in a telephone interview.

Shannan Watts and the children were reported missing on Tuesday from their home in Frederick, about 30 miles (50 km) north of Denver.

Watts said in an interview with Denver 7 on Tuesday that he was torn up inside about his family going missing and pleaded for their return.

“I just want them to come back,” Watts told TV station Denver 7. “My kids are my life. Those smiles light up my life. I want everybody to just come home.”

The next day he was arrested.

On Thursday authorities said they had discovered the bodies of his wife and daughters on a property owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corp., where Watts worked.

Neither Watts, nor his court-appointed attorney, have commented on the incident since his arrest.

Authorities have not confirmed local media reports that Watts confessed to killing his family, and that he strangled the two girls and stuffed their bodies inside oil barrels.

The case has drawn national media attention to the town of Frederick, a former mining town of 13,000.

Standing outside the Rock Solid Saloon in downtown Frederick, David Huston shook his head in disbelief at the murders.

“I just can’t imagine what circumstances would cause somebody to get to that point,” said the 35-year-old maintenance worker at a manufacturing plant, and the father of two.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)

Colorado baker in case of Supreme Court sues state over ‘persecution’

FILE PHOTO: Baker Jack Phillips decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado U.S. on September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado baker who won a narrow Supreme Court victory over his refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is suing the state after it launched another case against him for declining to create a cake for a transgender woman.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in the city of Lakewood, accuses Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission of violating his constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of religion, equal protection and due process, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver on Tuesday.

“This lawsuit is necessary to stop Colorado’s continuing persecution of Phillips,” the written complaint alleges. Also named in the lawsuit are Governor John Hickenlooper and Cynthia Coffman, the state attorney general.

Phillips seeks permanent injunctions against the state from taking any enforcement action against Phillips, who the lawsuit says was “vindicated” by the Supreme Court ruling.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado’s civil rights commission was hostile toward Phillips’ Christian beliefs when it cited him for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012, but did not rule on whether he violated Colorado’s public accommodation statute.

Through a spokeswoman, the civil rights commission declined to comment on Phillips’ lawsuit.

The lawsuit stems from a complaint filed by Denver attorney Autumn Scardina with the civil rights commission in 2017, in which she claims that Phillips refused to bake a cake that “celebrates my transition from male to female,” court documents showed.

Scardina did not immediately return a phone message left at her law office.

The director of the state’s Civil Rights Division, Aubrey Elenis, ruled in June that Phillips discriminated against Scardina.

“The evidence thus demonstrates that the refusal to provide service to (Scardina) was based on (her) transgender status,” Elenis wrote in a probable cause determination.

The finding by Elenis requires both sides to resolve the issue through “compulsory mediation,” the document said.

Phillips is also seeking $100,000 in punitive damages against Elenis “for her unconstitutional actions,” according to the lawsuit.

Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado, a group that advocates for the LGBTQ community, blasted the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative Christian group whose lawyers represent Phillips.

“We have seen the ADF launch similar lawsuits across the country that target nondiscrimination laws and civil rights agencies, and this broad lawsuit they filed on behalf of Jack Phillips reads as more of the same,” Ramos said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan WHitcomb)

Explainer: Drought creates a perfect storm for wildfires in U.S. West

Firefighters battle a fast-moving wildfire in Goleta, California, July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – Bigger and more “explosive” wildfires are raging across the U.S. West, with the area burned in Colorado already four times the size of last year’s total, as rising temperatures, drought and a buildup of forest fuels supercharge blazes.

So far this year, 3.3 million acres have burned in U.S. forests, just below the figure for this time in 2017. Last year was the second worst year on record with 10 million acres blackened, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

Around 2,600 homes have been destroyed nationally by fires year to date, according to Forest Service data. Nine U.S. wildland firefighters have been killed up to this week, compared with 14 killed in all of 2017, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. It was not immediately possible to verify how many civilians have died this year.

The number of wildfires larger than 25,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service land in the West nearly quadrupled in the decade to 2014, compared with the 1980s, according to data from the Department of the Interior.

The number of U.S. homes destroyed in wildfires almost tripled to 12,242 in 2017 from the previous year, according to U.S. Forest Service data, largely due to giant blazes in California that killed 43 people.

DROUGHT TURBOCHARGING FIRES

What’s driving the wildfires is exceptional drought conditions in large areas of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Severe droughts used to happen every four to five decades but are becoming frequent. In New Mexico, such dry periods have occurred in five years since 2000, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones in Albuquerque.

Nearly all of California faces abnormally dry or drought conditions, according to the Drought Monitor agency.

The state has had its worst start to the fire period in a decade, with 220,421 acres burned through Thursday morning, according to NIFC data.

In Colorado, preliminary figures show 431,540 acres have burned year to date, nearly four times the 111,667 acres blackened during all of 2017, according to NIFC data.

By August, the risk of large wildfires will be at normal levels in much of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain areas, thanks to a forecast for strong summer rains, but risk levels will remain above normal in California through October, according to NIFC data.

RISING TEMPERATURES

Rising average temperatures in the West are also stoking fires. Areas such as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have been in long-term drought since around 2000.

“We’re in a global (temperature) change drought,” said Peter Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Higher temperatures have helped extend the period of wildfires by 60 to 80 days each year, NIFC spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said.

“We’re not calling it a fire season anymore, we’re referring to a fire year,” she said.

An expected 1.8 Fahrenheit (1C) temperature rise by mid-century is expected to double or triple the annual acreage burned from a current 7 million acres average, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture.

UNHEALTHY FORESTS

A fire needs fuel to burn, and there is a lot of that in the U.S. West’s overgrown and often unhealthy forests.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. government pursued a fire suppression policy that sharply reduced the acreage burned but caused forests to become choked with underbrush and trees, allowing invasive species to enter. In the southwest, bark beetles have killed billions of conifers now providing fuel for infernos.

In California, invasive species like cheatgrass offer the perfect fuel for fire to spread. Millions of trees and bushes killed by California’s 2012-2017 drought are another fuel source.

“TSUNAMIS OF FLAME”

Southeast Colorado’s Spring Creek fire, the second largest in the state’s history at 108,000 acres, is an example of the kind of “perfect fire storm” menacing the West, said firefighter Ben Brack, 42, information officer on the blaze.

Burning at thousands of degrees with 300-foot-high “tsunamis of flame” fanned by erratic winds, Brack called it the most “explosive” fire he has seen. The fire has destroyed upwards of 148 homes, according to Costilla County authorities.

Brack compares such blazes to hurricanes or tornadoes for firefighters’ inability to stop them.

Fire crews get people out of the way, save what homes they can, and create fire breaks many miles from the flames. These fires may only be fully extinguished by the first snows of winter, Brack said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

Danish man charged with starting destructive Colorado wildfire

FILE PHOTO: Flames rise from a treeline near an emergency vehicle during efforts to contain the Spring Creek Fire in Costilla County, Colorado, U.S. June 27, 2018. Costilla County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Danish national accused of starting the second-largest wildfire on record in Colorado was charged on Thursday with 141 counts of first-degree arson for each building destroyed in the massive blaze, court documents showed.

Jesper Joergensen, 52, was advised of the felony charges in Costilla County Court via a telephone hook-up from the county jail where he is being held on a $50,000 bond for igniting the Spring Creek Fire in southern Colorado on June 27.

The blaze has scorched nearly 108,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, although wetter weather and mild temperatures this week have allowed crews to carve containment lines around 83 percent of the fire by Thursday afternoon, according to the InciWeb federal tracking website.

It is unclear from the charging documents how many of the 141 structures destroyed are homes.  Fire managers earlier said more than 130 homes had been reduced to ash.

Joergensen’s court-appointed attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Joergensen denied to police that he intentionally started the fire, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

U.S. wildfires have already burned more than 3.3 million acres (1.3 million hectares) this year, more than the annual average of about 2.6 million acres over the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) tracking website.

The American West has been particularly hit hard by wildfires this season, with 50 active fires burning in the region on Thursday, the agency said.

Colorado has suffered 589 fires so far this year, burning a total of 431,540 acres up to Tuesday morning, according to preliminary data provided by NIFC. That is nearly four times the 111,667 acres burned in all of 2017 in the state, according to NIFC data.

Joergensen told investigators that he thought a fire he lit for cooking while camping in the area was extinguished, but that the next day he saw a fire burning in the tinder-dry brush 20 feet away from his camper, police said.

Joergensen was in the United States on a visa which had expired and was living in the country illegally, the police affidavit said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has placed an immigration detainer on Joergensen for possible deportation proceedings whenever he is released from state custody, the agency said in a statement. He is due back in court in August.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Grant McCool)