Investigators looking for the cause of a colossal Colorado wildfire that forced tens of thousands to evacuate are focusing on property owned by a fundamentalist Christian sect, after witnesses reported seeing a structure on fire there moments before the blaze spread with astonishing speed. in the drought-stricken suburbs.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told a news conference Monday that the property owned by Twelve Tribes, founded in Tennessee in the 1970s, had become the target of the investigation after investigators ruled out the possibility that broken power lines started the fire.
Nonetheless, Sheriff Pelle cautioned against hasty conclusions regarding the origins of the blaze, pointing out that the investigation was only in its infancy and that it could take weeks, if not months, to determine the exact cause. He said investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the US Forest Service were assisting his department’s investigation.
“We are going to take our time and be methodical because the stakes are high,” said Sheriff Pelle.
Efforts to determine the cause of the blaze add to challenges facing officials in Colorado, after heavy snowfall over the weekend blanketed suburban areas that had been set ablaze by the blaze. Marshall. About 35,000 people were forced to evacuate the area last week, and many families remain in shelters after more than 900 homes were destroyed.
Authorities are still looking for two people missing in the blaze, which was among the most destructive in Colorado history. A severe multi-year drought favored dry and brittle conditions that allowed fires to sweep through residential areas.
A discussion of ownership of the Twelve Tribes emerged on social media Thursday, around the time the Marshall Fire started to spread, when video of a burning structure it began to circulate. Officials on Sunday confirmed the fire started on private property at the intersection of Marshall Road and Highway 93 in Boulder County, which is owned by Twelve Tribes. Sheriff Pelle confirmed on Monday that investigators were examining the site in addition to adjacent areas.
Several witnesses living nearby said they alerted authorities to the blaze at the site before hurricane-force winds spread flames around Boulder County. Anne Michaels, a kindergarten teacher who lives in the area, said she was walking past the property on Thursday while talking to her mother on her cell phone when she noticed something was wrong.
âI said, ‘Mom, I see smoke,’â Ms. Michaels, 43, said, adding that the smoke was clearly coming from the Twelve Tribes property. She said she called 911 shortly after to alert authorities.
Mike Zoltowski, another witness who said he saw the blaze on the property, while staying at a friend’s house next door, said he saw a fire crew on Thursday unsuccessfully attempting to put out what appeared to be be a shed on fire before leaving the site.
“As soon as I turned around and came back they were gone,” Mr Zoltowski said. told a local TV station. “And that’s when I realized something was really wrong here, because the shed was still burning.”
A Twelve Tribes spokeswoman said Monday an investigation was underway, but declined to comment further.
Twelve tribes came from a youth bible study group in the 1970s in Chattanooga, Tenn. Since then, it has grown into an international network of Autonomous Communities scattered across North and South America, Europe and Australia. The colony of Boulder is one of two in Colorado.
The group is presented as an assembly of up to 3,000 people united by a common belief in God, or Yahshua, and a strict adherence to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, according to its members. website. Men should wear long beards and tie their hair back, while women dress modestly. Its members often work in several group-owned companies across the country, which include a grocery store in Boulder.
Sheriff Pelle said earlier that a search warrant was executed in connection with the fire investigation, but did not say which location was searched.
He said initial hypotheses that downed power lines could have started the blaze were ruled out after fire investigators and work crews from Xcel Energy, which supplies power to the area, determined that the lines in question were used to transmit not electricity but telecommunications data. .
Meanwhile, the sheriff said investigators were trying to piece together what happened by speaking to as many people as possible. “What I saw today come in and out of this building to meet these investigators are dozens of people,” Sheriff Pelle said at the briefing.
He said investigators were working “mostly by hand and with small tools trying to get through these places” in an attempt to determine the source of the fire.
“It’s a very, very difficult job given the debris, the heat,” he said, describing the investigation as “in full force and in full swing.”
Evacuees awaited answers. Forrest Smith, 67, who escaped his home with the clothes on his back, a coffee mug and his smartphone, said he welcomed the investigation into the fire. But Mr Smith, who was staying at a Red Cross shelter after the fire ravaged his home, expressed doubt that the investigation would result in holding anyone to account.
âFirst of all, they have to prove who did it,â said Mr. Smith, a retired truck driver. In any event, he said, âYou can’t take it back. What is done is done.”
Charlie brennan contributed reports.