Controlled burn and downed power line sparked Colorado's costliest
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[June 09, 2023]
By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado's costliest wildfire on record started from
fierce winds that damaged power lines and unearthed smoldering embers
from a controlled burn days earlier, sparking two blazes that merged
into a deadly conflagration, authorities said on Thursday.
Investigators found a variety of human and weather-related factors
combined to spark the Marshall Fire, which killed two people and
destroyed nearly 1,100 homes in December 2021, but ruled out any
criminal culpability, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office said.
The sheriff's report was released as a group of two dozen homeowners and
community members filed a lawsuit against Xcel Energy, the utility whose
wind-damaged power lines the sheriff's office cited as having
contributed to the deadly fire.
The plaintiffs accused Xcel of negligence in failing to properly
maintain its equipment.
The company issued a statement disputing the sheriff's office findings
that sparks from arcing Xcel power lines caused a second ignition point
of the Marshall Fire, which began on nearby private property of the
Twelve Tribes religious sect.
"Xcel Energy did not have the opportunity to review and comment on the
analysis relied on by the sheriff's office and believes those analyses
are flawed and their conclusions incorrect," the company said.
The utility said flames from the second fire were not believed to have
caused any property damage, and that in any case the second ignition
point was at least 80 feet away from Xcel power lines in an area with
underground coal fire activity.
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Houses are engulfed in flames as
Marshall Fire spreads in Superior, Colorado, U.S. December 30, 2021.
Picture taken December 30, 2021. Sean David Van de Riet/via
But sheriff's investigators found no evidence that any underground
combustion in the area's coal seams produced heat capable of
starting a fire at the surface.
As for the first ignition source, sheriff's investigators traced its
origin to an area where a controlled burning operation has been
legally conducted on residential property of the Twelve Tribes just
six days before and had been properly covered over with dirt. But
high winds on Dec. 30, 2021 blew away loose soil, newly exposing the
embers while they were still hot, the report found.
Property losses from the fire, which scorched more than 6,000 acres
and laid waste to parts of two Boulder County towns on the northern
outskirts of the Denver area, have been placed at $2 billion,
ranking the blaze as the most costly in Colorado state history.
President Biden visited the fire zone days later, saying the rare
winter blaze marked the latest "code red" reminder of an ominously
Both the sheriff's office and local prosecutors determined there was
insufficient evidence of criminal conduct in connection with the
blaze and determined that charges would be filed, the sheriff's
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and
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