Volunteer firefighter admits setting blaze

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The 19-year-old volunteer firefighter who confessed to starting a wildfire last summer near the town of Elbert appeared in court to face formal charges and to ask for a reduction in his $50,000 bond.

Alex J. Averette of Elbert sat quietly in an Elbert County courtroom on Feb. 8, advised of the multiple criminal counts against him, including intentionally setting wildfire, second-degree arson, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and second-degree criminal trespass.

The 6-foot-6-inch volunteer firefighter with the Elbert Fire Protection District admitted to arson investigators he used a lighter to start a 600-acre blaze for “the experience,” according to Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap.

The fire, dubbed the County Road 102 Fire, started around noon on June 24, 2012, just north of the town of Elbert. It prompted the evacuation of 100 residents from the town and surrounding areas.

What began as a small brush fire quickly spread across the prairie, fueled by high winds and extremely dry conditions.

Public defender Helen Massey Hoopes asked the court to reduce Averett’s bond to $10,000 so her client could return to his job and care for his family.

“Mr. Averette’s primary concern now is for the well-being of his wife and child, as they have no other source of income at the time,” Hoopes said.

Elbert County Judge Palmer L. Boyette denied the reduction.

Heap called the case unfortunate.

“I call this kind of behavior unacceptable,” Heap said. “But it’s important for everyone to remember that in no way should this reflect on the many dedicated volunteer and public safety professionals we have here in the county.”

More than 100 fire and law enforcement personnel from multiple agencies responded to the fire at a time when state firefighting resources were strained due to the Waldo Canyon and Hyde Park fires.

Ground crews required assistance from county road and bridge teams, law enforcement personnel, and two single-engine aircraft tankers to contain the fire.

Fire Chief John Gresham addressed the case in an email. “I speak for all officers and volunteers of the Elbert Fire Department, as well as members of the Elbert community, in stating we were shocked and saddened to learn the alleged arsonist was one of our own,” he wrote. “Of course, that individual has been placed on indefinite suspension from all departmental activities, pending outcome of the legal proceedings.”

Gresham added: “While such an unfortunate act on the part of a misguided individual may occur, such an act is an extreme exception, in contrast to the commitment to public service exhibited by the dedication, goodwill and hard work conducted by the vast majority of our volunteer members.”

Elbert County Emergency Manager Cory Stark described the expenses associated with fighting the County Road 102 fire as “overwhelming.”

“There were just so many different units involved, as well as a variety of firefighting assets we had to bring in from different jurisdictions to help,” Stark said. “There are a lot of costs that aren’t so obvious, like fuel, supplies, and damage to firefighting equipment — and that doesn’t even begin to include damage to private property. It will be a while before we can really know the entire cost associated with that particular fire.”

Heap said countless hours have been expended over a seven-month period to bring the responsible individual to justice, and he will seek restitution on behalf of the ECSO for expenses incurred in connection with the fire.

The Elbert Fire Protection District covers more than 18o square miles and serves 1,500 people.

Averette, a 2011 graduate of Elbert High School, remains in custody.

The court also denied an earlier request by Averette to be released on personal recognizance.

Averette’s next court appearance will be March 8.

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