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Investigation into Marshall Fire shows multiple ignition points, sheriff says

Sheriff Joe Pelle said the investigation into the cause of the state's most destructive wildfire is nearly complete.

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — The Marshall Fire that ravaged Boulder County last Dec. 30 did not start with a single spark, Sheriff Joe Pelle confirmed to 9Wants to Know on Wednesday.

Pelle declined to discuss other details in the nearly complete investigation of the state’s most destructive wildfire, but he confirmed earlier reporting by 9NEWS that video evidence and documents suggested the blaze started in more than one place.

“That’s accurate,” Pelle said. “There's going to be more than one ignition point. I think we're going to have a couple of fires that started almost simultaneously that grew together into one big fire.”

Pelle said the investigation is in its final stages. He said it’s possible it will be completed before he finishes his fifth and final term in office in less than two weeks.

Pelle said his investigators recently presented preliminary findings to Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who in turn “brought in some other attorneys and actually sat a panel and went over all the evidence.”

“They came back with some suggestions as to some follow-up questions they wanted answers and that kind of thing,” Pelle said.

He said that work is ongoing and has included follow-up interviews with some witnesses who were questioned very early in the investigation.

“Our investigation needs to be done accurately and thoroughly,” Pelle said. “And it needs to stand the test of litigation and other experts and all of those things.”

BURNED: The story behind the Marshall Fire

While the main thrust of the investigation is to determine whether anyone should face criminal charges, Pelle said it's his guess that "this matter will be litigated for years to come" and the findings need to stand up over time.

Driven by hurricane-force winds, the Marshall Fire erupted on Dec. 30, 2021, and raced east, destroying more than 1,000 homes, killing two people and causing $2 billion in damage.

Initial speculation about the fire’s cause centered on property owned by a religious group, Twelve Tribes, near Colorado 93 and Eldorado Springs Drive. Multiple videos showed a fire burning on the group’s property before flames were seen anywhere else.

But 9Wants to Know also reported that a long-smoldering underground coal fire – burning for more than a century – is located in the area where the fire started.

In March, 9Wants to Know reported that Boulder park ranger reports and witness video showed that the Marshall Fire had two separate ignition points that were a third of a mile and 40 minutes apart.

Pelle told 9Wants to Know that his office has been assisted by the U.S. Forest Service and has consulted with outside labs and experts – including electrical engineers – trying to pin down exactly what started the fire.

"We're not sparing any expense or trying to get by cheaply here," he said. "We're trying to get it done in the right way."

Investigators have collected 137 pieces of digital evidence – including hundreds of photos – and 49 pieces of physical evidence. That's in addition to 266 body-worn camera recordings and another 450 photos captured by law officers. Pelle declined to talk in even general terms about the kinds of physical evidence collected.

"I'd rather not because it's going to cause people to speculate," he said.

He also said that some potential causes were ruled out early in the investigation. Other than lightning, he would not say what they were.

"We'll start the guessing game," he said.

He said that while the investigation is important, his office has also had to tackle other issues.

"At the same time we've been working on the investigation, we've been also actively trying to implement changes and upgrades to emergency notifications, wireless emergency activation, creating evacuation zones, creating escape routes, and just improving the conditions and the ability to notify people in the eastern part of our county of a major event," he said.

He said the overtime bill for people working on the investigation and other aspects of the fire is going to run into the "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

"Our detectives that are working on this fire are also handling homicides and officer-involved shootings and, you know, other crimes, so there's been delays," Pelle said.

He said he understands that people who lost their homes want answers.

“It's a high priority, and it's a high priority to do well,” he said. “I would rather be very meticulous and take all the time we need with this then I would be in a hurry and miss something or be wrong.”

> The video below is the 9Wants to Know investigation into the Marshall Fire's ignition points that aired in March:

Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

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