After a 17-month-long investigation, Boulder County officials announced Thursday morning that the 2021 Marshall Fire began as two separate fires – one on a residential property and the other near a broken Xcel power line just south of the first fire.
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the investigation found no evidence of criminal activity and that no criminal charges will be filed.
The investigation comes almost a year and a half after the Dec. 30 fire which destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 homes, killed two people and many pets and prompted the University of Colorado Boulder to start the spring 2022 semester online.
“This investigation took longer than was anticipated, and I appreciate your patience,” said Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson, who lost his home in the fire. “I know, personally, the last 18 months have been hard, and not having answers creates stress and challenges.”
The investigation determined the first fire began at a residential property at 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive shortly after 11 a.m.
Investigators said embers from a scrap wood fire residents set six days earlier on Dec. 24 were uncovered by strong winds on Dec. 30 and blown into nearby vegetation, which caught fire and spread quickly.
Firefighters responded to a report of the Dec. 24 fire and determined that since it was a “cool and damp” day and the residents intended to bury the fire, the fire was being “conducted responsibly.” The fire was not in violation of any state law or county regulation, according to Dougherty.
Residents became aware of the fire on Dec. 30 and tried to put it out, but due to the wind, the fire spread too quickly.
Johnson confirmed the residents at the property were part of the Twelve Tribes religious group, which many originally speculated played a role in the fire.
The second fire started near the Marshall Mesa Trailhead, just 2,000 feet south of the residential property, where investigators believe a broken Xcel power line, likely disconnected by the wind, discharged sparks into dry vegetation nearby.
Surface vents from underground coal mines near the trailhead, which caused a small grass fire in 2005, cannot be ruled out as a cause, but investigators believe it is more likely the unmoored power line caused this fire.
Investigators are still unsure of when or where the two fires converged. Neither party will be criminally charged.
Criminal charges for arson must prove a party acted recklessly or knew such actions could cause a certain outcome. Dougherty defined recklessness as disregarding a “substantial and unjustifiable risk.”
The residents of 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive did not meet these criteria, according to Dougherty.
“Clearly, on Dec. 24, when they set this fire, they had no idea that the high wind event – where winds were gusting up to 100 miles per hour – [was] going to happen on Dec. 30,” he said.
The investigation also found that the Xcel equipment in the area was in good condition and that the company hadn’t met the criteria for criminal charges either, according to Dougherty.
With the investigation coming to a close, Johnson said he recognizes the news will affect all victims of the Marshall Fire differently. He hopes to rebuild his home and look toward the future.
“I hope that now we can focus on rebuilding our lives and getting back to our homes and our community,” he said.
Contact CU Independent Managing Editor Celia Frazier at Celia.Frazier@colorado.edu.