Boulder County investigators narrow origin of Marshall fire to one neighborhood


Investigators have narrowed the point of origin of the most destructive wildfire in state history to a neighborhood off Colorado 93 and Marshall Road, near where a passerby captured video of a burning hangar the morning the fire started, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said on Sunday.

“The fire started somewhere in this neighborhood,” he said during a press briefing on Marshall’s fire recovery efforts. “There was a viral video that was posted of a burning shed. We do not know if this hangar started the fire or if it was secondary.

Pelle said investigators are still working to find the exact origin and cause of the wildfire, which, following hurricane-force winds, burned 6,219 acres on Thursday, destroying or damaging more than 1,000 homes and businesses in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated. Boulder County. Two people are still missing and fear death.

The sheriff declined to speculate on the cause of the fire on several occasions during the briefing.

“It’s complicated and it’s in the snow,” said Pelle. “We will settle this. It is an active and open agreement and the result of this investigation is vital, there is so much at stake. So we will be careful. “

A man who lives near the intersection where the Marshall fire is said to have started, Mike Zoltowski, said on Sunday he believed he witnessed the start of the wildfire on neighboring property – a cluster of houses and of land occupied by members of The Twelve Tribes, a Christian religious sect.

Zoltowski looked out the window around 11:30 a.m. Thursday to see a fire engine heading for the neighboring property, he said. Smoke billowed from the property and stunning winds blew Zoltowski out as he stepped out to investigate.

Members of the controversial sect, founded in the 1970s in Chattanooga, Tennessee, lived in several buildings around 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive in Boulder County, Zoltowski said. This address is listed as the location of the Twelve Tribes “Boulder Community” on the group’s website. Eldorado Springs Drive is one of several Twelve Tribe affiliated communities and businesses around the world, including the Yellow Deli in Boulder and another community in Manitou Springs.

Twelve Tribes have previously been investigated for violations of child labor law in New York City, and in 2019, a former cult member told CU Independent, the student information publication of the University of Colorado Boulder, whom he had been beaten as a child while belonging to the group.

“It’s really obvious where this fire started”

Zoltowski, who works with a company that builds fire-resistant houses, has been living next to this property for about a month, in a house owned by his friend, Dave Maggio.

When Zoltowski came out to investigate the blaze on Thursday morning, he approached houses on cult property and found three people huddled between two cars, trying to shelter from the strong wind. Two young guys crouched down with an older man, Zoltowski said.

“They were like, ‘He broke his shoulder,'” Zoltowski said of the older man. “And I was like, ‘Oh man, what’s going on here? And they said, ‘One of our homes caught fire.’ What was weird was that they were like, “It’s okay.” … It was a strange interaction.

Zoltowski helped the two younger men get the older man into a house in the compound.

“Then I went to their field and their field was on fire,” he said. The strong winds pushed him down as he made his way back to his house. At one point, he looked up to see a line of women and children moving from building to building within the compound, holding hands.

It is certain now, on second thought, that the forest fire has started on the property of the Twelve Tribes.

“I don’t want to speculate, it’s still under investigation, but there is no possible way the fire started from somewhere else,” he said.

Pelle warned on Sunday that the investigation into the start of the fire had not yet identified the cause or the exact location. But he said it was clear the fire had started in that general area.

“Well, it’s pretty obvious when you’re driving or seeing the video posted online,” he said. “I was there this morning. I am not a qualified fire investigator, and it is really obvious where this fire started and which direction it went.

Pelle said investigators spoke to witnesses but declined to say whether everyone involved was cooperating with the investigation.

“I’m not going to go in there,” he told reporters.

Since the fire, law enforcement officials have visited and around cult property every day, Zoltowski said. Sheriff officials confirmed on Saturday that they served a search warrant on property as part of the Marshall fire investigation, but Pelle has repeatedly refused to identify the location. Authorities could be seen fencing off the buildings of the Tribe of Twelve on Sunday, Zoltowski said.

Governor Jared Polis said on Sunday that investigators would seek to hold someone responsible for the blaze if it was caused by a deliberate or reckless blaze.

“If there was any form of arson or accidental fire, I would expect that one of those responsible would be held fully responsible under the law for the utter devastation that was caused,” he said. -he declares.

A Twelve Tribes member who identified himself only as Lee during a phone call with the Denver Post on Sunday denied that the fire started on the cult’s Boulder property. But he also said he was based in New Hampshire and heard second-hand information.

A person who answered the phone at the Yellow Deli in Boulder asked the sheriff’s office questions, then hung up on Sunday morning.

Boulder County officials investigate a property along Colorado 93 near Eldorado Springs Drive in Boulder, Colorado on January 2, 2022.

“They certainly had fires”

The house Zoltowski lives in on Eldorado Springs Drive is owned by Maggio, who in September moved to a new house a few miles from Panorama Drive. Maggio, who has lived next to the religious sect for about five years, said fires were common at the compound and firefighters had already been called to the several-acre property.

“They certainly had fires that got out of hand where the authorities were called, in the same field where the hangar was,” he said.

Pelle declined to say on Sunday whether authorities had ever responded to illegal fires in the area where the blaze started. There are trails, businesses, homes, and a mobile home park in the area.

Investigators initially believed broken power lines may have started the blaze, but have since ruled it out. Officials said telecommunications cables fell in the area during Thursday’s 100mph windstorm and could have been mistaken for power lines by passers-by. A reporter who visited the area where the fire started saw overhead lines hanging down.

Maggio said his neighbors generally stayed with each other and that he had never seen any issues that caused him to call the police while living next to the Twelve Tribes.

When Zoltowski called Maggio to tell him about the blaze on Thursday, Maggio was worried about his old house right next to the blaze. He wasn’t worried about his new home, several miles down Panorama Drive.

But shortly after Zoltowski alerted him to the fire, Maggio received a reverse 911 call to evacuate his Panorama home.

He took everyone out, the pets and the kids – and the new house was burnt to the ground.

The house on Eldorado Springs Drive was not affected.


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