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Cause of devastating Black Forest blaze remains unknown

By: matt steiner
June 7, 2014 Updated: June 8, 2014 at 10:25 am
Caption +
El Paso County Sheriff's Deputies direct evacuees at the corner of Black Forest Rd. and Shoup Rd. in Black Forest on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette file)

Cindy Balch received an alarming phone call on the afternoon the Black Forest fire started.

The 56-year-old, who lives on a small ranch with miniature horses, chickens and her three dogs on the 12000 block of Peregrine Way, said one of her workers stopped by after lunch June 11, 2013, to tend her animals and saw smoke billowing above a small rise.

According to Balch, the man and his helper opened a gate and walked up the hill toward the smoke.

"That's when he said he could see the flames," Balch said. "I thought, 'Get a hose.' But he said, 'I'm not talking about a little fire. I'm talking about a forest fire.'?"

Balch, whose property was virtually untouched by the fire, said one of the men called her and the other dialed 911. A dispatcher told him that several people had reported the blaze on the neighboring land.

Investigators determined within a few months that the fire was human caused. But almost a year later, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Forest Service haven't said whether the fire was accidental or set on purpose.

The fire raged in 60 mph wind gusts, temperatures in the high 90s and extremely low humidity. More than 1,000 firefighters descended on northern El Paso County to fight the fire that eventually burned 14,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people.

"It was a perfect storm event," said Chief Bob Harvey of the Black Forest Fire Protection District, who has fought wildfires throughout his 40-plus-year career.

Harvey, whose department was among the first agencies at the scene, said he hasn't heard any updates about the investigation since the Sheriff's Office last reported on the status in December.

Sheriff Terry Maketa and his office have not responded to several recent requests by The Gazette for an update on the investigation.

Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Kramer said in an email sent Dec. 13 that hundreds of pieces of evidence found near the point of origin were examined, sometimes multiple times. He said sometimes forensic laboratories will push requests back on the schedule when more important cases take precedence.

While details about the fire's origin have not been released, sheriff's detectives confiscated several pieces of equipment from Balch's property before the fire was contained June 20.

By June 18, detective Mark Pfoff had a search warrant for her ranch.

The detective allowed Balch to return to her home within a week after the fire started. But the visit wasn't for her to check her property - it was to sign paperwork authorizing the Sheriff's Office to take "all of my equipment," Balch said, noting that deputies took anything with a combustible engine and told her it was evidence.

"I was really angry," she said.

Balch said the Sheriff's Office used her 5-acre property for staging for weeks. She and neighbors say the fire is believed to have started on land just north of Balch's ranch. Balch said detectives told her early on that her workers were considered possible suspects, but as far as she knows, they have since been cleared.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the Waldo Canyon fire that sparked nearly two years ago also remains unsolved.

Colorado Springs police detective Lt. Adrian Vasquez said in December and again May 21 that the investigation has stalled since the summer of 2012. The more than 18,000-acre Waldo Canyon fire that began June 23, 2012, also was ruled human caused, but investigators have struggled to determine if the fire was the work of an arsonist.

Vasquez said police are playing a waiting game, hoping that someone will come forward with information. The tip line to call with information for the Waldo Canyon investigation is 385-2222. A $100,000 reward has been offered by an anonymous donor for anyone with crucial information.

"There have been a few tips that have come in," Vasquez said.

He hasn't lost hope the person who started the fire or a confidant or witness will come forward.

"I just keep hope alive because I've seen successes in cold (murder) cases that are decades old," he said.

"Man, you just never know."

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