Marshall fire cause: Boulder County officials identify wildfire origin

After 17 months of investigating everything from a religious cult to Xcel Energy power lines to an underground coal fire, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office is set to announce the findings of its investigation into the origins of the 2021 Marshall fire.

Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson and District Attorney Michael Dougherty will discuss those findings at 10 a.m. Thursday during a news conference at the sheriff’s office.

The wildfire was the most costly in Colorado history, destroying more than $2 billion in property. Two people died in the fire, and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County.

The Marshall fire’s intensity was fueled by powerful winds that pushed the wildfire across parched grass and brush. It burned more than 6,000 acres after it first ignited around 11 a.m. Dec. 30, 2021. The wind was so strong that flames did what was thought to be impossible — jump all six lanes of U.S. 36.

The wildfire fizzled the next day after a snowstorm moved into the area.

Two other fires were reported in Boulder County that morning — the Middle Fork fire and the Broadway fire. But it was the Marshall fire’s run through dense suburban housing that caused so much damage. The fire forced a hospital evacuation, and the number of people fleeing caused traffic jams on area roads.

The fire is believed to have started near the intersection of Marshall Road and Colorado 93. But theories about what caused it vary.

About 85% of all wildfires are caused by humans through burning debris, equipment malfunction, cigarettes, campfires and arson, according to the National Park Service.

On the day of the fire, then-Sheriff Joe Pelle said it might have been caused by power lines blown down by the high winds. He reversed course the next day and said there was no evidence that power lines had sparked the wildfire. Instead, Xcel Energy told authorities its inspections found compromised communication lines that may have been misidentified as power lines.

In April 2022, however, two businesses and an anonymous couple filed a lawsuit that claims Xcel Energy’s power lines did cause the Marshall fire. The lawsuit accuses the power company of failing to maintain and monitor its lines. Xcel asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, but he ruled that it could move forward.

Days after the fire, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office fenced off property and executed a search warrant on land owned by the Twelve Tribes, a nationwide religious cult. A neighbor took video on the day of the Marshall fire that showed a shed burning on the property, and that video circulated online as people looked for someone to blame. Law enforcement never reported what investigators found on the property.

A burn restriction was in place that day because of the high wind in the forecast.

Finally, investigators looked at the possibility that an underground coal seam that has burned for nearly a century under Marshall Mesa somehow ignited the fire. The sheriff’s office hired outside help to look into that possibility.

Authorities have said they have reviewed hundreds of videos and pictures taken by law enforcement body cameras as well as drone footage. Investigators also have reviewed photos and videos taken by witnesses.

In December, the sheriff’s office posted footage online of its rescue efforts in the burn zone east of Cherryvale Drive online. All footage from operations west of Cherryvale Drive has been kept secret.

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