Former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa stands just over the ridge where the Black Forest fire started 10 years ago.
"Originally that day the winds were coming out of the southwest and almost (sent the fire in) a triangle from the point where it started," Maketa said as he showed us how the flames fanned out in a triangle from the point of origin.
As Maketa headed to the command post that day, he could see firefighters rushing to get it out.
"It was just kind of eerie in that moment, the winds hadn’t kicked up, you’d get these little breezes and this thick plume of smoke come through and it instantly took us back to the year prior," said Maketa. "All I could think about was it can’t happen again, our community hasn’t healed, it can’t happen again."
The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs just one year before had prepared Maketa and his team for how to respond.
"The Sheriff as the statutory fire marshal is responsible for the coordination for outside assets," Maketa said. "You’re splitting your resources. Your focus is on evacuation, making sure people aren’t missing, getting the resources fire (teams) need, or the security at road closures needed and then you deploy investigators in to start securing those scenes because you don’t want them tampered with."
As Maketa was focused on evacuations, then District Attorney Dan May and his team of investigators were focused on the investigation. They quickly started going through the first 911 calls to come in to find any clues as to where it began. He says the next day they were able to move into the fire scene. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service took the lead on the investigation.
May says two independent investigations from the USFS both traced the fire back to the same area. (Click here to read both the initial and secondary origin determination investigations). One of those investigations noted, "An initial report from a local firefighter...suggested the fire originated by a gas meter along Falcon Drive."
"Quite frankly, it just didn't seem as credible," May said, "We had two different very qualified teams eliminate that as the origination point."
May says the origination point was narrowed down to an area of about 17 feet by 30 feet. He says they could not find the exact spot the fire started because they believe the fire burned through the area twice, destroying more evidence in its path. The proof: burned fire hoses are still on the ground ten years later. May says the firefighters who first responded said they did not leave any behind, suggesting there was another crew that came in for another later firefight.
"When the task force comes to me, and says, 'Dan the cause of the fire can't be determined, here are best possibilities, but we don't know' there's nobody we can charge," May said. "The task force, on this case, my office, the Sheriff's office, all the forest agencies involved in this case wanted to resolve this, wanted to find out what happened, wanted to hold somebody accountable, and if we could do that today we would."
May says the USFS narrowed the fire down to three possible causes: equipment use, debris burning, and incendiary.
"They found it could be incendiary, meaning that someone could've just used a match or a lighter or something like that, not an incendiary device, but they could've used to match," said May. "The second thing they come up with is equipment. There's a lot of equipment in the area there's actually mitigation work going on, there's different vehicles. Some of it complied with US Forest Service standards and some did not, and they say that's a possibility. The third is what they called debris and specifically we had someone here who had a chimney who is doing some work. As they're burning stuff, they don't have the right equipment on top of the chimney to stop ash from flying, and it is possible that the ash flew that area and also started the fire, but you don't know. We don't know on this one."
May says what complicated the case, even more, was uncertainty about which day it started.
"So now you open up even more possibilities," he said. "Could someone have just walked through the area and done something that they weren't even aware of? So now we've got two days to cover and they said it's almost equally plausible that it started on either day. That particular report even goes on to say said it could have been a day before that."
Then there was the horrific discovery of two lives lost, 52-year-old Marc Herklotz and his 50-year-old wife, Robin.
"Once the people were found dead, it’s now a criminal scene with potential homicide charges," Maketa said.
May says the couple died as they got ready to evacuate.
"The evidence would suggest they kept going back-and-forth and back-and-forth putting things in their car because there's a whole bunch of weapons in particular, but there's a whole bunch of stuff in their car," May said.
May said without a specific cause there's no one to hold accountable.
"I can understand the frustration. It was just devastating to all the people who lived here," May said. "We had two people die, we lost 488 homes. It was just devastating to this community, and they ought to know what happened, but in this case, we just can't tell.
When asked how much the case weighed on him, May replied, "A lot. I was out here quite a few times. It's one of those things you wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I go back and look at the photographs, look at the evidence myself to see what I can determine."
May believes the case will likely remain unsolved.
"You'd almost have to have somebody know they did it and come forward and say here's what I did," May said.
In the meantime, the former sheriff has an important reminder to the community of just how easily a fire like the one here can happen again.
"Although to a lot of people who have moved here this is history, this is something that happened long ago, it can’t happen again," Maketa said. "It could happen anytime any year under the basic weather conditions. It can happen and all it takes is one careless act."
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