June 10, 2014 Updated: June 11, 2014 at 1:09 pm
A “concrete source of ignition” may never be found for the Black Forest fire, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said Tuesday.
Dismissing notions that his office has been distracted by recent allegations of improprieties, the sheriff addressed a horde of media representatives from across the state in releasing the Black Forest Fire After Action Report Improvement Plan. During a presentation on some of the findings, he said that his office “has pretty much concluded” its investigation into the cause of the blaze.
“I think what we’ll end up with is cases of probability — some being low and some being very high,” Maketa said of pinpointing a specific cause.
The report came a day before the one-year anniversary of the start of the state’s most destructive blaze, which destroyed nearly 500 homes, 188 outbuildings, eight detached garages and one cellphone tower, according to the report released Tuesday.
The report comes as the sheriff faces allegations of sexual impropriety, discrimination and creating a hostile work environment — prompting questions about whether his office is ready for the next disaster.
“This office has never been as prepared as it is today,” Maketa said.
Maketa reiterated that months ago investigators with his office, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives determined that the blaze was “human caused.” But they have not ruled whether it was set accidentally or on purpose.
“I’m so angry,” said Theresa Vialpando-Knoll, who lost her home on Rusk Lane. “I don’t think it was intentional, but I am so angry that it was human caused.
“To think that somebody was so stupid when there was such a high risk.”
Vialpando-Knoll said her family lost five homes in the Black Forest fire.
“In a matter of hours, our lives were devastated,” she said, noting that she and her husband rebuilt their garage and are living there, but they’ve yet to decide if they will stay.
“The land is scorched and it’s so ugly,” Vialpando-Knoll said.
On Tuesday, Maketa said that after months of analysis of evidence and fire behavior, investigators are waiting for a final report from the Forest Service before the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office takes over. Maketa said DA Dan May and his team will determine further proceedings, including whether to pursue a homicide investigation.
Two residents, Allen and Robin Herklotz, were killed in the early stages of the fire that was first reported about 1:30 p.m. June 11, 2013. The sheriff has said multiple times during the investigation that criminal charges could be sought whether the fire is determined to be accidental or arson.
Maketa said investigators agree on the spot where the fire began but said a cause might be elusive. Smoking, lightning, a campfire, railroads and children playing in the area have been ruled out as potential causes.
Among those not on the “ruled out” list are combustible engines.
At least one person living near where the investigation centered off Peregrine Way had several thousands of dollars of equipment confiscated just days after the fire began. Cindy Balch and her handyman said a sheriff’s detective took “anything with a combustible engine” from her5-acre property.
When asked if the Sheriff’s Office’s conclusion to its investigation would lead to confiscated items being returned, Maketa said evidence would be returned “once the DA has reviewed the case.”
The After Action Report also outlined strengths and weaknesses of the response to the fire.
Many of the shortcomings paralleled those of the Waldo Canyon fire that burned more than 18,000 acres in the mountains west of Colorado Springs in June 2012.
Maketa said issues with communication and identifying command structure early on were two of the biggest stumbling blocks, especially during the first day of the blaze.
Radios were frequently overwhelmed, the report said, and cellphones quickly became useless because the network was saturated.
National Guard troops couldn’t reach sheriff’s deputies, prompting the Sheriff’s Office to create a cache of 75 radios. And a statewide plan for using 800MHz radios is still needed, he said.
Seventeen minutes elapsed before anyone said they were in charge of the burgeoning fire, the report said. Maketa continued his criticism of Black Forest Fire
Rescue Chief Bob Harvey, noting that “I still have questions” about his handling of the fire’s early moments.
Maketa vowed, however, to work alongside Harvey and the Black Forest Fire Rescue in the event of another large fire.
Among the strengths listed in the report are lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon fire and a collaborative effort with the Type 1 Incident Command team that Maketa said ran smoothly as soon as it took over.
“We applied lessons learned from Waldo and had quick mobilization of resources,” he said.
The sheriff praised his office’s relationship with Type 1 commander Rich Harvey and his team, which also led the battle against the Waldo Canyon blaze.
“We knew one another and we knew what was expected,” Maketa said.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Maketa rebuffed questions about accusations made against him, saying he would let an ongoing investigation take its course.
When asked if the allegations and calls by the Board of County Commissioners for Maketa’s resignation would hinder his office’s ability to address weaknesses outlined in the report, he said the recent investigation into his own actions has “nothing to do with what they are doing.”
“We have 786 employees in this office and every day every one of them is coming to work and doing their job,” Maketa said. “The distractions that I’m responsible for have not in any way impacted their duties and responsibilities, right down to the preparation of the After Action Report and the progress that continues to be made on the investigation.”
Gazette Reporter Stephen Hobbs contributed to this report.