Embers from a scrap wood fire and a sparking power line have been identified as the primary causes of the devastating 2021 Colorado wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,100 homes and claimed two lives, according to authorities. After an 18-month investigation, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty stated in a press conference that criminal charges would not be filed against either The Twelve Tribes, the religious communal group occupying the home, or the utility responsible for the power line. The fire, known as the Marshall Fire, erupted on December 30, 2021, in the densely populated suburbs between Denver and Boulder, causing $2 billion in damages and becoming Colorado’s most destructive wildfire on record.
The inferno was fueled by high winds and exacerbated by months of drought and a lack of snow in the region. The bone-dry grassland surrounding the fast-growing development area, located near the Rocky Mountain foothills, provided ample fuel for the rapidly spreading flames. The strong winds, reaching gusts of up to 100 mph (160 kph), contributed to the fire’s swift progression. The investigation revealed that a smoldering scrap wood fire, which had been buried by residents in accordance with instructions from firefighters who had inspected the site, was one of the ignition sources. The powerful winds uncovered the buried embers six days later, leading to the fire’s outbreak. In addition, a loose power line belonging to Xcel Energy caused a separate fire nearby, which combined with the first fire to create the massively destructive blaze.
During the press conference, Sheriff Curtis Johnson, who lost his own home in the fire, emotionally described the residents’ attempts to extinguish the flames but noted that the winds quickly outpaced their efforts. Xcel Energy, however, strongly disputed the investigation’s findings, stating that it was not given an opportunity to review what it deemed “flawed” analyses. The Twelve Tribes, a Christian religious community with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 members worldwide, declined to comment on the fire or its aftermath.
The fire resulted in the tragic loss of two lives—a 69-year-old man who lived near the suspected origin of the fire and a 91-year-old woman who was last seen trying to rescue her dogs from her home. As the fire raged through the cities of Superior and Louisville, located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver, thousands of residents utilized the extensive road network to evacuate the area. Smoke, flames, and blowing embers made for treacherous conditions, and shifting winds caused skies to alternate between clear and smoky. The fire rapidly destroyed 1,084 homes, seven commercial buildings, and damaged almost 200 other structures.
While investigators acknowledged the presence of underground smoldering coal mines in the area, they did not attribute them as a direct cause of the fire. The region encompasses an abandoned coal field where two underground fires, fueled by coal deposits, have burned slowly over the years. However, these underground fires were not deemed to be a contributing factor to the 2021 blaze. The fire’s destructive impact, which covered an area of 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers), surpassed any previous wildfire in Colorado in terms of the number of structures destroyed and damaged. The second-most destructive fire in state history occurred in 2013 outside Colorado Springs, resulting in the destruction of 489 homes and claiming two lives.
Although a lawsuit has been filed against Xcel Energy, alleging that sparks from a power line triggered the fire, the Hickman family, who lost their home, expressed frustration that the cause remains somewhat inconclusive. They indicated a potential interest in joining litigation against the utility company to recover costs, citing a precedent set by a 2019 settlement for wildfire damages involving a California utility. Currently residing in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Hickmans have built a new home using insurance money and have decided to sell their vacant lot in Colorado. Barba Hickman, who suffered from asthma, expressed her desire to move away from the recurring wildfires in the West as a primary reason for their relocation.
The lengthy investigation into the cause of the Marshall Fire has finally concluded, and the decision not to pursue criminal charges has been met with mixed reactions. Some homeowners, like Barney Thinnes, who has also had to rebuild, agree with the sheriff’s office and want to move forward from the tragic event. Thinnes emphasized the importance of focusing on the future rather than dwelling on the past.
As climate change continues to impact the planet, experts warn that similar events, including wildfires, will become more frequent and severe. With the growth of suburbs in fire-prone areas, the risk to communities and properties increases. Authorities and residents alike must remain vigilant and take necessary precautions to mitigate the devastating effects of wildfires.
The aftermath of the Marshall Fire serves as a somber reminder of the destructive power of wildfires and the importance of proactive measures to prevent and respond to such disasters. As communities continue to rebuild and recover, lessons learned from this tragic event will shape future efforts to enhance fire safety, land management, and emergency response protocols.
While the scars of the Marshall Fire will take time to heal, the resilience and determination of the affected communities are evident. By coming together, supporting one another, and implementing necessary measures, Colorado and other fire-prone regions can strive to reduce the impact of future wildfires and protect lives and property for generations to come.