Federal agencies join investigation into cause of Marshall fire

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Boulder County authorities have zeroed in on a neighborhood they believe is the origin of the Marshall fire but have not yet determined a cause, Sheriff Joe Pelle said Sunday.

Authorities said the fire likely started near Marshall Road and Colorado 93, and they are working with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to identify what started it. The wind-driven explosive fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and businesses, becoming the most destructive in state history.

“This is an open and active investigation and we are bringing in the best people we can bring in,” Pelle said at an afternoon news conference in Boulder, noting that investigators are doing “ good progress.”

A search warrant was executed on private property as part of the hunt to determine the cause of the fire, but Pelle refused to release the location or name of the owner.

The sheriff said the office was aware of a “viral video” showing a burning shed, which fueled speculation on social media as to whether it caused the blaze. Pelle said it’s unclear if the shed or anything around it could have been the source, or if the flames started elsewhere and spread there.

Pelle added that investigators spoke to people about what started the fire, but did not specify anyone. He also declined to comment when asked if anyone was cooperating with authorities.

A Boulder Rural Fire Department firefighter approaches a burning house near Trail Ridge Road and Washington Avenue in Louisville, CO on Dec. 30, 2021. Driven by 110 mph winds, the blaze in Marshall ravaged Louisville, Superior, and unincorporated Boulder County, consuming 6,200 acres and destroying 991 buildings. (Jeremy Sparig, Special for The Colorado Sun)

The outcome of the investigation is “vital,” Pelle said. “There is so much at stake.”

Governor Jared Polis and other officials also met in Boulder on Sunday to discuss aid pledged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the Boulder area and to relay an update on the search for three people missing after the fire.

One of the missing – and feared dead – has been found “alive and in good health”, Pelle confirmed.

The person, an elderly man, is from Superior, the sheriff said without providing details. Efforts to locate the other two missing persons are ongoing.

“We are still looking for a male in the Marshall area and a female in Superior, and teams are here today as we speak with dogs, search teams trying to see if they can locate and recover anything. “, said Pelle in Colorado. Sun.

Polis toured the burned area Sunday morning with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and congressional leaders. While briefing the media, Polis recounted “heartbreaking” scenes he saw, including carcasses of abandoned cars burned beyond recognition.

“It really is a fast-track crisis, the way it quickly moved to destroy nearly 1,000 homes and many more damaged,” Polis said.

President Joe Biden on Saturday approved a declaration of disaster for Colorado. FEMA has sent about 100 staff to Colorado to assist in its recovery efforts and will continue to deploy more personnel in the days and weeks to come, Criswell said. Among the most critical priorities to address are the short- and long-term housing needs of affected families.

“I know this is going to be a long road to recovery,” Criswell said.

The Marshall Fire destroyed 991 homes and businesses and damaged 127 other structures, according to an official tally. That’s about double the number of homes destroyed in Colorado’s second most destructive fire, the Black Forest Fire, which leveled 489 homes north of Colorado Springs in 2013.

Residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the Marshall Fire can apply for grants from FEMA, which also offers financial assistance to affected cities through a reimbursement program, the spokeswoman for the agency, Lynn Kimbrough. The Small Business Association also offers low-interest loans to homeowners, offering $2,000 loans to those who suffer property damage greater than the amount they insured for. Additionally, $40,000 loans are available for families who have lost property in their home beyond what was insured.

The state has created a “one-stop help center” where people can seek help from FEMA, insurance agencies and nonprofits. The center is located at 1755 S. Public Road in Lafayette and will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. this week.

Rising temperatures on Sunday paved the way for areas decimated by the Marshall Fire, aiding the work of recovery teams searching for remains with cadaver dogs. Authorities have previously said their search was hampered by snow piled on crumbling foundations after up to 10 inches fell on parts of the affected area.

9News of Denver identified the missing Superior resident as 91-year-old Nadine Turnbull, who was last seen in her burning home by a family member who was forced to flee.

The change in weather – from sub-zero temperatures overnight to a high of 40 degrees on Sunday – was also expected to help efforts to restore power and gas to thousands of people who lost service after the blaze.

Sunday afternoon, around 1,600 people were without power. About 1,000 of them were inside the burned area, and the rest in remote areas where restoration takes longer, Xcel Energy said.

The utility, which sent more than 400 crews to repair and restore services, has had about 100,000 customers affected by power outages since gusty winds ripped through Boulder County starting Thursday morning, said Xcel Energy Colorado President Alice Jackson.

Many homes that lack power inside the burned area “will not be able to receive it,” Jackson said.

Utility crews went house-to-house and business-to-business to identify buildings that can and cannot receive electrical services.

Xcel Energy has also been working to restart natural gas services after having to shut down gas services amid the Marshall Fire. About 13,000 customers have had their natural gas service cut off and about 1,400 of them have had their gas service restored so far, Jackson said. These crews are also stopping spot by spot to reactivate service, she said.

A steady procession of people offering aid turned up at the Lafayette YMCA on January 2, 2022, dropping off blankets, toiletries, clothing, food and pet food to help the victims of the Marshall fire. Molly Olk from Denver brought the bedding. (David Gilbert, The Colorado Sun)

Amid widespread outages, the Red Cross shelter at the YMCA in Lafayette housed 124 evacuees, down from 112 the first night. The number of visitors expected to stay overnight on Sunday fell to 30, after many people were allowed to return home, Red Cross spokesman John Seward said.

The Red Cross is making progress in finding short-term accommodation for those who remain, he said.

Among the refugees was Nicole Young, 38, who is waiting to hear when she will be able to enter her storage unit in Superior and whether her belongings have survived. A former student at the University of Colorado, she grew tired of paying rent in Boulder and stored what she owned and went to work as a long-distance truck driver.

Young was in Texas when she heard about the fires. She dropped off her truck and headed to Colorado.

“My whole life is in this storage unit,” she said. “The legacy of my grandparents, my vinyl collection. For now, I’m just sitting here feeling hopeless and useless.

As she considered her next steps, a constant procession of visitors dropped off blankets, toiletries, clothes, food and pet food.

Molly Olk from Denver brought the bedding.

“I used to live in Boulder, and this situation just hurts my heart,” she said. “I hope this is helpful.”

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