Investigators 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 passer-by captured video of a burning shed the morning the fire started, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Sunday.
“The fire originated somewhere in that neighborhood,” he said during a news briefing on Marshall fire recovery efforts. “There was a viral video that was posted of a shed on fire. We don’t know that that shed started the fire or whether it was secondary.”
Pelle emphasized that investigators are still working to find the exact origin and cause of the wildfire, which, on the back of hurricane-force winds, burned across 6,219 acres Thursday, destroying or damaging more than 1,000 homes and businesses in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County. Two people remain missing and feared dead.
The sheriff refused to speculate on the fire’s cause several times during the briefing.
“It’s complicated and it’s under snow,” Pelle said. “We will sort it out. It’s an active, open deal and the outcome of that investigation is vital, there is so much at stake. So we are going to be careful.”
A man who lives near the intersection where the Marshall fire is believed to have ignited, Mike Zoltowski, said Sunday he believes he witnessed the start of the wildfire on the property next door to him — a pack of houses and land occupied by members of The Twelve Tribes, a Christian religious sect.
Zoltowski looked out his window at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday to see a firetruck making a beeline for the neighboring property, he said. Smoke billowed from the property, and knock-you-over winds blasted Zoltowski when he stepped outside 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. That address is listed as the location of the Twelve Tribes’ “Community in Boulder” on the group’s website. The Eldorado Springs Drive compound is one of many communities and businesses affiliated with the Twelve Tribes across the world, including the Yellow Deli in Boulder and another community in Manitou Springs.
Twelve Tribes previously has been investigated for child labor law violations in New York, and, in 2019, a former sect member told the CU Independent, the University of Colorado Boulder’s student news publication, that he was beaten as a child when he belonged to the group.
“It’s really obvious where that fire started”
Zoltowski, who works with a company that builds fire-resistant homes, has lived next door to that property for about a month, in a home owned by his friend, Dave Maggio.
When Zoltowski stepped out to investigate the fire Thursday morning, he approached the homes on the sect’s property and found three people huddled between two cars, trying to shelter from the brutal wind. Two younger guys crouched 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 the hell is going on over here?’ And they said, ‘One of our dwellings caught on fire.’ What was weird is they were like, ‘It’s OK.’ …It was a weird interaction.”
Zoltowski helped the two younger men get the older man inside a house on the compound.
“Then I went over to their field and their field was on fire,” he said. The strong winds pushed him over as he walked back to his house. At one point, he looked up to see a line of women and children moving from one building on the compound to another, holding hands.
He’s sure now, thinking back, that the wildfire began on the Twelve Tribes’ property.
“I don’t want to speculate, it’s still under investigation, but there is no possible way the fire started from any other place,” he said.
Pelle cautioned Sunday that the investigation into the fire’s start hasn’t yet pinpointed the cause or exact location. But he said it was clear that the blaze began in that general area.
“Well, it’s pretty obvious when you drive through, or see the video posted online,” he said. “I was there this morning. I am not a trained fire investigator, and it’s really obvious where that fire started and what direction it went.”
Pelle said investigators have spoken to witnesses but declined to say if all those involved are cooperating with the investigation.
“I’m not going to get into that,” he told reporters.
Since the fire, members of law enforcement have been in and around the sect’s property every day, Zoltowski said. Sheriff’s officials on Saturday confirmed they’d served a search warrant on a property in connection with the Marshall fire investigation, but Pelle has repeatedly refused to identify the location. On Sunday, authorities could be seen fencing off the Twelve Tribe’s buildings, Zoltowski said.
Gov. Jared Polis said Sunday that investigators will look to hold someone responsible for the blaze if it was caused by deliberate or reckless burning.
“If there was any form of deliberate or accidental arson, I fully expect any of those responsible will be held fully responsible under the law for the utter devastation that was caused,” he said.
A member of Twelve Tribes who identified himself only as Lee in a phone call with The Denver Post on Sunday denied that the fire started on the sect’s Boulder property. But he also said he was based in New Hampshire and was hearing information second-hand.
A person who answered the phone at Boulder’s Yellow Deli directed questions to the sheriff’s office and then hung up Sunday morning.
“They definitely had fires”
The home Zoltowski lives in on Eldorado Springs Drive belongs to Maggio, who in September moved to a new house a few miles away on Panorama Drive. Maggio, who lived beside the religious sect for about five years, said fires were a regular occurrence on the compound and firefighters had been called to the several-acre property before.
“They definitely had fires that got of control where authorities were called, back in that same field where the shed was,” he said.
Pelle declined to say Sunday whether authorities had previously responded to illegal burning in the area where the fire began. There are trails, businesses, houses and a mobile home park in the area.
Investigators initially believed downed powerlines may have started the fire, but have since ruled that out. Officials have said telecommunication cables did come down in that area during Thursday’s 100-mph windstorm and could have been mistaken by passers-by as electrical lines. A reporter who visited the area where the blaze began saw overhead lines dangling.
Maggio said his neighbors generally kept to themselves, and he never saw problems that prompted him to call the police while he lived beside Twelve Tribes.
When Zoltowski called Maggio to tell him about the fire on Thursday, Maggio was worried about his old home right beside the blaze. He was not concerned for his new house, several miles away on Panorama Drive.
But not long after Zoltowski alerted him to the fire, Maggio received a reverse 911 call to evacuate his Panorama house.
He got everyone out, pets and kids — and the new house burned to the ground.
The home on Eldorado Springs Drive was untouched.
Source: Read Full Article