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Eyewitness to Marshall Fire origin recounts scene like a ‘war zone’

Video by Mike Zoltowski appears to show devastating blaze’s earliest moments
A still from a video that Mike Zoltowski made of a fire behind 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive on the morning of Dec. 30 that is being investigated as a possible origin of the Marshall Fire in Boulder County. (Mike Zoltowski/YouTube screenshot)

A neighbor of a property where a small structure was seen on video engulfed in flames late Thursday morning said he witnessed how those flames appeared to touch off what became the devastating Marshall Fire and that there might also be at least one other ignition source.

“I saw everything,” the neighbor, Mike Zoltowski, told Newsline. He said the scene “was like a war zone.” Zoltowski made his own video clips of the scene, which he shared with Newsline.

Zoltowski lives just south of 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive, east of the Eldorado Springs community. A video taken a little before noon Thursday by witness Anjan Sapkota showed a small structure, variously described in media accounts as a shed or barn, engulfed in flames at the property. The video is part of the investigation into the cause of the Marshall Fire, which wiped out about 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior and is the most destructive fire in state history. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle confirmed Sunday that investigators have determined the origin of the fire is in that area.

Law enforcement officials executed a search warrant at a location as part of the fire investigation, though Pelle has not specified whether that occurred at Eldorado Springs Drive. On Sunday morning, sheriff’s deputies and vehicles were seen at the address, and two members of the Colorado National Guard in a military Humvee blocked access to the road.

The property is occupied by members of The Twelve Tribes religious community, who operate The Yellow Deli in Boulder.

A person who answered the phone at The Yellow Deli and declined to share their name referred a reporter’s questions to Boulder County Sheriff’s Office investigators. “I don’t have any comment to make at this time,” the person said. The person said of Twelve Tribes residents, “Everyone’s OK,” and they’re evacuated from the property.

‘Their entire field was on fire’

Zoltowski, who works with Just Biofiber Structural Solutions on bringing the Canada-based company to America, said he was home Thursday when he noticed first responder activity outside. He went to the Twelve Tribes property to see what was happening and encountered two men, one who Zoltowski said had a dislocated shoulder. He also saw about seven children and five women on the property, where he estimated 20 to 25 people on average live at any given time.

“When I went over there to help them, their entire field was on fire,” Zoltowski said, adding that the property totals roughly 5 acres.

When he asked residents what happened, they said, “One of our dwellings caught on fire,” Zoltowski said. “If you want to actually put real news out there, the dwelling caught on fire and it probably spread to the barn, because the barn – I watched the entire thing burn down. Like it was whole, and then it burned down, but there was smoke before then.”

He cautioned that, though this is what he saw, the dwelling is slightly downwind of the barn and he therefore wonders how the fire could have spread from the dwelling to the barn. He also said he had no communication with the residents that would have indicated what might have caused a fire in the dwelling.

Fire officials initially suggested that power lines blown down by wind, which was recorded in the area as gusting at around 100 mph Thursday, caused the fire. On Saturday, officials said investigators had found no downed power lines near the fire’s origin, only telecommunications lines.

Local power company Xcel Energy had “inspected all of their lines within the ignition area and found no downed powerlines,” a statement from the Boulder Office of Emergency Management said. “They did find some compromised communication lines that may have been misidentified as powerlines. Typically, communications lines (telephone, cable, internet, etc.) would not be the cause of a fire.”

‘This had to be separate’

Zoltowski, however, said that what he witnessed led him to believe there was another ignition source south of the Twelve Tribes property.

He gestured to a hill west of the property, in the direction the wind was whipping that morning, and said he saw it covered in black smoke. “That burned for probably 45 minutes, until a power line went out over there” – he pointed south, perpendicular to the direction of the wind on Thursday – “and then all of a sudden this went (on fire),” he said. “This was separate. This had to be separate.”

While acknowledging he cannot distinguish between power and telecommunications lines, Zoltkowski said he saw “so many” utility lines down.

“For everything to be burning all the way on this side and the winds blowing that direction, for this to catch on fire is almost impossible,” he said.

Pelle, in an interview with Newsline on Sunday, said Zoltowski’s account of another ignition source was plausible.

“That’s very much in alignment with what I personally saw,” Pelle said.

Pelle emphasized that only a methodical investigation by experts could produce a reliable description of how the Marshall Fire started. But he noted that the first fire personnel on scene Thursday reported a line down in an RTD parking lot just south of the Twelve Tribes property, and “we had a phone call from somebody that said there was a fire on a power line.”

“The line that was reported I believe was the telecomm line that hangs below (the power line) and it’s down on the ground, and it’s an inch thick, it’s huge,” Pelle said. “And I’m told it can’t have enough electricity to start a fire, but it’s right in that spot where your eyewitness said they saw a fire, and there’s a pole that’s burned there. I’m just saying, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. I want expertise involved.”

The notion that the shed was not the fire’s source on the Twelve Tribes property is also possible, Pelle said.

“We have a video of that shed burning,” he said. “But was it primary, was it secondary? What were the sequence of events? Those are all a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

He said it’s important to avoid speculating on the fire’s cause before a thorough investigation is complete.

“We don’t want to point the finger anywhere, because the stakes are huge. The risk to anybody from the anger in the community, the financial aspects, it’s enormous,” he said. “So we’re going to move really slow and be really cautious and get the right people to help us as far as expertise.”

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.