A 43-year-old man known to be part of Durango’s homeless community has been cited on suspicion of starting a fire at Oxbow Park & Preserve last week, according to the Durango Fire Protection District.
The fire was reported around 2:30 p.m. April 2 on the preserve side of the park, which is in north Durango along Animas View Drive. When emergency personnel arrived, the blaze had expanded into thick brush and had caught trees on fire.
By about 5 p.m., firefighters had controlled the brush fire to about 2 acres. No homes were damaged and no people were injured.
According to a statement, DFPD and the Durango Police Department conducted a joint investigation to determine the cause and origin of the fire.
Shortly after emergency crews arrived, a person of interest was identified who was seen in the area, the statement said. The person was questioned and admitted to investigators he started the fire.
The man was identified as Thomas Joseph Cox, who, according to the released statement, is a member of the local transient community and well-known to law enforcement.
Cox was cited with “firing woods or prairie,” a Class 2 misdemeanor.
In an interview Friday, Fire Marshall Karola Hanks said investigators believe Cox started the fire by lighting some grasses and sticks.
When questioned why he started the fire, Cox said, “he didn’t know why,” according to Hanks.
Oxbow Park & Preserve is a 44-acre area along 1.7 miles of the Animas River in north Durango, with most of the land, about 38 acres, dedicated as a natural preserve for wildlife habitat.
Hanks said “quite a few” of the cottonwood trees in the preserve side of the park were damaged by the fire and will likely have to come down.
“Grasses and brush come back,” she said. “(But) cottonwoods do not handle fire well. They may look OK to begin with, but generally, they don’t survive. That’s going to be a real negative.”
Hanks said Oxbow Park & Preserve is a sanctuary for many wildlife species, and the fire is likely to disturb nesting birds that use the preserve during spring.
“This is the time birds are nesting and getting ready to raise their young,” Hanks said. “It’s painful to see happen.”
Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop said based on evidence and interviews, the “firing woods or prairie” violation was the most appropriate charge. Under state law, anyone found guilty of the citation can be fined up to $1,000, as well as any other measures a court deems appropriate.
Dunlop said Cox had been arrested in connection with two other incidents in 2020, one for suspected disorderly conduct at Walmart and another for trespassing at north City Market.
Hanks said the fire at Oxbow could have been a lot worse, given the dry conditions and fire danger across Southwest Colorado. Many residential homes are located adjacent to the park and preserve.
“It (could have been) pretty significant,” Hanks said. “We’re concerned about the potential and possibility of a fire this year.”