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Marshall Fire likely began as a result of resident's buried fire, disconnected Xcel power line, sheriff says

Boulder County District Attorney says no criminal charges will be fired in connection with origins of fire
hanging line in marshall fire
Posted at 10:53 AM, Jun 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-09 00:16:57-04

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — The Marshall Fire began as two separate fires, the first of which was likely sparked by a resident's buried fire from about a week prior and the second which likely began as a result of a disconnected Xcel Energy power line, the Boulder County sheriff announced Thursday morning.

The Boulder County District Attorney said based on the extensive investigation, no criminal charges are appropriate.

The fast-moving fire in Boulder County was reported around 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021 amid exceptionally dry conditions. The blaze, fueled by hurricane-force winds and dry fuels, ran east for 6,000-plus acres, destroying more than 1,000 homes and businesses in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County. More than 35,000 people were evacuated. Two people — Edna Nadine Turnbull, 91, and Robert Sharpe, 69 — died. An estimated 1,000 pets were lost.

The Marshall Fire quickly became the most destructive fire in Colorado history, with about $2 billion in losses.

READ MORE: All Denver7 coverage of the Marshall Fire and the aftermath

An investigation involving both state and federal agencies launched into its cause and origin. More than 200 tips were checked, countless people were interviewed, and 266 recordings and 450 photos from deputies' body-worn cameras were analyzed.

Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson releases cause and origin of the Marshall Fire

Meanwhile, speculation spread quickly. Some people suspected an Xcel Energy power line, an underground coal fire or a local religious group.

On Wednesday, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office announced it would publicly present the much-anticipated outcome of its investigation the following day.

On Thursday morning, Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson began the press conference by recognizing the investigation into the cause and origin took a significant amount of time to complete and that in some cases, public patience wore thin.

"While it took time, I can confidently say that we know what happened and why," he added.

Boulder Sheriff Curtis Johnson gets emotional remembering loss of home in the Marshall Fire

He started by explaining that the Marshall Fire actually consisted of two fires that eventually merged.

The first one started on a residential property along the 5300 block of Eldorado Springs Drive shortly after 11 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2021.

Six days prior, on Dec. 24, 2021, the residents lit a fire on that property to dispose of scrap wood. That day was cool and rainy, with no wind. A passerby called 911 to report the fire. Mountain View Fire Rescue firefighters and a sheriff's deputy responded and when they spoke with the resident, they determined the person planned to let the fire burn itself out and then bury the coals, Johnson said. That fire is pictured below.

A fire burning at a Boulder County resident's home on Dec. 24, 2021. The Marshall Fire sparked on Dec. 30, 2021.
A fire burning at a Boulder County resident's home on Dec. 24, 2021. The Marshall Fire sparked on Dec. 30, 2021.

Because of the conditions of that day, the fact the property had a large water source available, and that the residents had buried the coals around 5 p.m. that day, authorities believed the property owners were being responsible. The resident later reported not using water to extinguish the Dec. 24 fire.

There was no indication between Dec. 24 and 30, 2021 of any additional fire from this property.

"On Dec. 30, the high-wind event uncovered the previously buried fire and the embers were exposed to oxygen and blown into the nearby dry vegetation," Johnson said.

It began to spread east on the property. The residents tried to put it out, but were unable to due to the strong winds. Experts have since told the investigators that under the right conditions, smoldering combustion can occur for weeks or even months when hot coals are buried. Johnson said after learning this, county ordinances were changed to provide more specific information on extinguishing a fire.

Responding firefighters tried to suppress the fire but had to move to the intersection of Marshall Drive and Eldorado Springs Drive, where the strong winds "showered them with embers — causing one firefighter to suffer burns to his face and neck — and prevented them from applying water," according to an investigative summary released Thursday. The firefighters reported a shed on the property, which was widely published as a possible origin point, was not on fire when they arrived, however it did burn afterward. The follow-up investigation showed the shed did not have any electrical service and there was no indication the Marshall Fire had started there, Johnson said.

About one hour later, a second fire started south of the Marshall Mesa Trailhead, he said. Initially, firefighters believed this may have started as a result of the embers from the first fire along Eldorado Springs Drive, but this second one was about 2,000 feet south and west. Investigators determined it was near impossible for embers to have traveled that far against the strong winds, which were predominantly blowing from west to east.

origin points of Marshall Fire_Boulder County Sheriff's Office

Further investigation found the most likely cause of the second fire was "hot particles discharged from an Xcel Energy power line" at the Marshall Mesa Trailhead, located at 5258 Eldorado Springs Drive, Johnson said. After examining those lines, investigators found that one of the lines became unmoored, or disconnected, from a cross arm and was hanging low enough to touch a support brace. This damage happened between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2021, according to a motion-activated trail camera that had been installed at the Marshall Mesa Trailhead to prevent thefts, the investigative summary reads. After the line broke, smoke and flames were seen near the base of that power pole.

That power line is shown below.

hanging line in marshall fire

According to the report, investigators fund two areas where they believed the trailhead fire may have started. They were 79.6 feet and 110.5 feet from the power line.

An electrical engineer and wildland fire expert from Jensen Hughes, a consulting firm, assisted with this part of the investigation. The expert determined that "the power line showed significant evidence of electrical arcing," which produced hot aluminum particles that were discharged and could travel from the pole into the dry fuels below the line. The expert said it's "more likely than not" that those particles started the second fire.

At the same time as this press conference, lawyers representing victims of the Marshall Fire filed a mass action lawsuit against Xcel Energy, claiming the energy provider is to blame. Click here to learn more about this lawsuit.

As the press conference progressed, Johnson showed a photo of one of the involved power lines, which had visible material missing from the line. It was not initially recognized during the inspection of the fire because the line had been reattached to the cross arm on Jan. 2, 2022 "in an effort to restore power to the area as quickly as possible," he said. Thousands of homes in the area did not have power after the fire and snow fell over the area on Dec. 31, 2021, so heating homes was a serious concern and there were urgent requests for Xcel Energy to restore power as fast as possible.

damaged power line in marshall fire
This photo shows the damaged Xcel Energy powerline found in the investigation into the Marshall Fire.

"This repair seemed to have possibly been performed in violation of a 'do not repair' order that Xcel Energy had issued on Dec. 31, 2021, to preserve the system until a cause and origin investigation could be completed," the investigative summary reads. "...The Xcel Energy employees involved in the repair process eventually participated in voluntary interviews with investigators. Those interviews, and all other available documentary evidence, indicates that Xcel repaired the disconnected line on Jan. 2, 2022, solely to restore power to customers."

In addition to the Marshall Mesa Trailhead disconnected power line, there were also reports of a downed power line around Highway 93 and Eldorado Springs Drive. However the only line near the ground was a communication line and it did not have enough of an electrical current to start a fire, Johnson said.

While experts believe Xcel Energy’s power line was the most probable cause of the fire that broke out at the trailhead, investigators couldn't completely rule out the possibility that it was ignited by an underground coal fire in the same area.

dougherty map marshall fire

The above map shows the locations of those coal seam vents (green boxes). The damaged power line is in the lower left as well.

The Boulder-Weld coal field is underneath that trailhead and while it was only mined between 1863 and 1939, the seam under the trailhead is burning and ignited grass in December 2005. Officials have completed abatement work in this area and based on the findings of a private consulting company after the Marshall Fire, "temperatures and gas emissions were consistent with a closed mine atmosphere with minor venting and oxidation but were inconsistent with conditions required to ignite a surface fire," the investigative summary reads.

At some point on Dec. 30, 2021, the fire that started at the trailhead and at the resident's property became one blaze, but it's still unclear when and where this happened, Johnson said.

After all the evidence was gathered, the sheriff's office asked the district attorney's office to review the results.

At that point in the press conference, 20th Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty was invited to speak.

Dougherty said from the beginning, his office promised to leave no stone unturned in an "incredible thorough, exhaustive investigation." He said his office also looked into seeing if criminal charges were appropriate in connection with the Marshall Fire's origins.

"The decision of the district attorney's office, which is that there's insufficient or no evidence of a crime having been committed, is consistent with the findings by the sheriff's office, investigators, the U.S. Forest Service and also the experts who worked on this case," he said.

"This fire was terribly destructive and traumatic for so many people," he continued. "We make our decisions about charging criminal offenses by evidence and not based on emotion. We've gone through all of the evidence in the case and what I want to really stress to the community is: If we were to tell you today that we were filing charges, it would be wrong and unethical."

He said he understands people may have cheered if criminal charges were filed because of how much people have suffered in the wake of the fire.

Boulder DA on why he can't charge property owners in connection with Marshall Fire

He explained how his office came to the conclusion of not filing criminal charges.

Dougherty said fire experts decided that the way the residents started the fire on their property on Dec. 24, 2021 was "reasonable and responsible," Dougherty said. There is no evidence they set a fire on Dec. 30, 2021, he said. All adults and children who were on the property at the time were interviewed. There is no evidence that the residents, after covering a nearly extinguished fire with dirt, would expect the flames to reemerge. An arson charge is not applicable, he said.

When discussing the Marshall Mesa Trailhead Fire, he said his office agreed with the sheriff's office when coming to the conclusion that while coal seam vents were relatively close to the Xcel Energy power line suspected with starting the second fire, that it seems "more probable and more likely that it was the Xcel wire as opposed to embers from 2,000 feet away or the coal seam vents," he said, adding that he recognizes the power company may not share that view.

Boulder DA says why Xcel can't be charged in connection with Marshall Fire

"The question for criminal charges though, is whether Xcel was criminally reckless or negligent in the maintenance of that wire," Dougherty said. "We looked at a number of things and I will say that neither the investigators nor the experts found any evidence of criminally negligent or reckless system design or maintenance in connection with the equipment and wiring in that specific area... There was no evidence of worn materials, shoddy construction or sub-standard conditions. Thus, no criminal charges can be proven against Xcel Energy for the role that it likely played, or its equipment likely played, in the second fire igniting at the trailhead there."

He said the wounds inflicted by the fire and in the aftermath have not all healed. Some never will.

"But as people continue to rebuild, we rebuild as a community," Dougherty said.

He said his responsibilities are tied to any criminal investigation, but said this conclusion may "play a role in civil litigation," he said. He could not comment further.

Toward the end of the press conference, Sheriff Johnson thanked all the first responders who responded to the fire.

"I really want to thank the Boulder County community," he said, growing emotional. Among the thousand-plus homes destroyed in the fire was his family's. "This investigation took longer than what was anticipated and I appreciate your patience. I know personally the last 18 months have been hard. And not having answers creates stress and challenges that we don't need. And now we can focus on rebuilding our lives and getting back to our homes in our community."

On Thursday morning, Denver7 learned that a group of Marshall Fire victims filed a mass action lawsuit against Xcel Energy. It seeks economic and non-economic damages for the role Xcel played in the devastating blaze. Twenty-four plaintiffs, including homeowners and community members, are part of the lawsuit.

mass action thumbnail.jpg

Marshall Fire

Mass action lawsuit alleges Xcel Energy is to blame for Marshall Fire

Kelly Dietz
10:53 AM, Jun 08, 2023

The lawsuit, filed in Boulder County’s District Court, alleges “Xcel Energy’s power lines and energy utility equipment caused the Marshall Fire, which led to significant harm to the environment and public health.”

Watch the full news conference from Thursday morning below. The full investigative summary and review is available here.

Full news conference: Boulder County officials reveal cause, origin of Marshall Fire

Xcel Energy sent Denver7 a response to Thursday's news, in which it said the company is thinking of those impacted by the Marshall Fire.

We agree with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office report that the Marshall Fire started as a result of an ignition on a property (5325 Eldorado Springs Drive) previously reported to be affiliated with an entity called the Twelve Tribes, and that this ignition had nothing to do with Xcel Energy’s powerlines. The Sheriff’s report cites several potential causes for a second ignition near the Marshall Mesa Trailhead that started roughly an hour after the first fire. We believe the second fire burned into an area already burned by the fire from the first ignition, and did not cause damage to any homes or businesses.

We strongly disagree with any suggestion that Xcel Energy’s powerlines caused the second ignition, which according to the report started 80 to 110 feet away from Xcel Energy’s powerlines in an area with underground coal fire activity. Xcel Energy did not have the opportunity to review and comment on the analyses relied on by the Sheriff’s Office and believes those analyses are flawed and their conclusions are incorrect.  We have reviewed our maintenance records and believe the system was properly maintained. We operate and maintain our electric system consistent with leading energy service practices and we’re proud of our employees and the work they do to deliver safe, reliable and clean energy to our communities. As members of the Boulder community, we will continue to support our neighbors in this recovery.

After the press conference, Boulder County Commissioners also released a statement. That is below:

The Boulder County Commissioners are grateful to the detectives and many experts who worked diligently to determine the origin of this devasting fire and to Sheriff Curtis Johnson, DA Michael Dougherty, and former Sheriff Joe Pelle for their leadership. Our community has suffered deep trauma from the Marshall Fire, which will take many years to heal from, and we recognize that today’s announcement may very well not bring about the closure that many community members are looking for. We know that the community has many questions and we appreciate the Sheriff’s Office making the reports and evidence available on their website in the interest of openness and transparency.

In the face of this tragedy, our community came together to recover and rebuild. That process started before today’s announcement and that process continues after today. But we should each take a moment to reflect on our own mental health and how today’s announcement has affected us. Knowing the cause and origin of the fire may provide closure for some, while more anguish for others. Let’s continue to offer support to one another and heal together.