BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — The Marshall Fire had two separate ignition points a third of a mile and 40 minutes apart, according to documents obtained by 9Wants to Know and multiple cell phone videos captured in the blaze’s first hour.
The two separate starting points were documented by a Boulder park ranger who was driving in the area on Colorado Highway 93 when trouble was first reported on Dec. 30 – a day that saw hurricane-force winds rake the region.
Multiple videos shot by different people as the fire grew and spread corroborate the ranger’s observations.
That ranger documented a ground fire on the Twelve Tribes property that started around 11:20 a.m. – and then a separate plume of smoke that began rising in open space land to the southwest about noon. The area of that second smoke plume, near where the Marshall Mesa trailhead is located, is upwind from the Twelve Tribes property. It is also above a long-smoldering underground coal mine fire and alongside Xcel power lines that parallel Highway 93. Both of those are possible ignition points being considered by investigators.
On Jan. 21, 9Wants to Know reported that the underground coal fire, which has been burning since 1869, was being looked at by investigators. It sparked a small wildfire in the area in December 2005 and has been the subject of work aimed at preventing that from happening again.
Michelle Aguayo, an Xcel spokeswoman, said the winds that day did not down any power lines but acknowledged that wires could have touched and arced. Still, Aguayo told 9Wants to Know in an e-mail that “nothing we have seen to this point in the investigation leads us to believe that arcing – or any other aspect of our equipment’s operation – ignited the fire.”
Still, the idea that the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history had more than one ignition point remains a focus of the investigation.
And now the report of Kelly McBride, a ranger with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, documenting two distinct ignition points adds a new dimension to the understanding of the factors at play when the fire erupted.
Cell phone video captured by multiple individuals in different places corroborates McBride’s report.
Taken together, they help explain the complexity of an investigation now in its tenth week.
The first report of trouble went out at 11:08 a.m. when emergency dispatchers sent firefighters to the area of Highway 93 and Marshall Road on a report of smoke – “possibly from a power line down.”
McBride radioed in that she was in the area.
But when she and firefighters checked the area where Highway 93 intersections with Colorado 170 – a road also called Eldorado Springs Drive and sometimes referred to as Marshall Road – they didn’t see any smoke. Instead, they noticed a utility line sagging over the intersection.
Although they initially suspected it was a power line, it was actually a communications cable and is no longer thought to have played a role in the fire’s start.
Firefighters closed the intersection, and McBride helped block traffic, according to her report, which was obtained by 9Wants to Know under Colorado’s open records law.
While there, McBride saw firefighters “leave the scene and respond to a plume of smoke coming from the north side of the Twelve Tribes property.”
Anne Michaels, who lives in the area, captured video of smoke rising from the property at 11:19 a.m.
McBride went to Twelve Tribes to help, according to her report, and while she could not get close enough to see exactly what was burning, she noted that firefighters radioed out that “no structures were involved.”
McBride then moved to the intersection just below the Twelve Tribes property to block traffic, telling residents living in homes to the east to evacuate.
Video captured by former state Rep. Jack Pommer beginning at 11:25 a.m. shows the ranger’s pickup in the intersection as smoke billows from the Twelve Tribes property.
Around 11:30 – McBride put the time as “approximately” 11:32 in her report – a shed on the Twelve Tribes property began to burn. Video captured by Pommer and three others over the next 30 minutes shows flames consume the shed, reducing it to smoldering black timbers.
Notably, video shot by Pommer at 11:33 a.m. and 11:40 a.m., and video shot by Mike Zoltowski at 11:54 a.m., shows that no fire was burning in the open space around the Marshall Mesa trailhead.
By then, McBride had moved from her position near the Twelve Tribes property and parked her truck across Highway 170 near the Marshall Mesa trailhead parking area.
Around noon, she wrote in her report, “I saw a new plume of smoke coming from the western side of the Marshall Mesa trailhead.”
The area where she saw the second plume of smoke rising is along Highway 93 in the area where power lines parallel the road.
“The smoke appeared to be coming from below the utility lines, but I never had the opportunity to confirm that since was the only unit in that area,” McBride wrote. “By the time other units arrived the fire had joined in with the original start.”
Video shot by Mike Zoltowski at 12:03 p.m. confirms her observation – it shows smoke rising from the southwest side of the open space land. Winds roaring across the property pushed the smoke plume toward the east.
Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.
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