June 7, 2014
Almost a year after the Black Forest fire ignited and rode high winds through 14,280 acres, the owner of property near where it started off Peregrine Way wonders why the El Paso County Sheriff's Office is holding more than $35,000 worth of her equipment.
Cindy Balch stood in her large, nearly empty steel storage building recently and described several pieces of heavy machinery and some smaller items that sheriff's investigators took as potential evidence just days after the June 11 start of the blaze. It was the most destructive fire in state history, destroying 488 homes and killing two people.
Balch said detective Mark Pfoff and deputies confiscated "anything with a combustible engine" after using her 5-acre property as a "staging" site for several days during the fire. She said they also took her computer and other items from her home in the 12000 block of Peregrine.
Balch said she initially was only allowed back to her property, which she has called home for 31 years, by invitation from the Sheriff's Office. Most evacuations were lifted June 20, when the fire was contained, and she was allowed to return home June 22. The 56-year-old added that after months of inquiring about her confiscated belongings and the investigation, hiring a lawyer to help out and sending letter after letter to the Sheriff's Office and the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office, she has no answers.
"I haven't seen my stuff," she said. "I don't even know where it's at, nothing. I never did anything wrong and I get treated like I'm sludge."
Balch provided The Gazette with copies of search warrants and the official Sheriff's Office list of items taken from her property and house. The list included such things as a skid loader, a large tractor, a log splitter and even a lawnmower that Balch said hadn't been used in so long that it was caked with "inches of dust."
Using case numbers on Balch's documents, The Gazette made a Colorado Open Records Act request to the Sheriff's Office for related documents and information. Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg White responded in an email saying, "The cases referenced above are still active and open investigations. As such, no documents will be released at this time."
The investigation into the cause of the Black Forest fire determined that the blaze was human caused.
But investigators with the Sheriff's Office, the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have not yet released whether the state's most destructive wildfire was set accidentally or intentionally.
Balch, her longtime handyman Coy Martin and neighbors who live near Peregrine Way said the property just north of Balch's was the focus of investigators for months after the Black Forest fire was contained June 20. The fire touched Balch's property along the property line, but she lost only a half-cord pile of firewood and a small trailer.
Martin arrived at Balch's home in the early afternoon June 11 and encountered a large plume of smoke and a "wall of fire" less than 200 yards from Balch's property line. Martin said he could see the smoke as he drove north from Colorado Springs.
"I knew what area of the forest that was, so I hauled ass out there," he said.
The handyman said he dashed through a gate in his Jeep and onto the neighboring land where he and other neighbors had done forest thinning to help the adjacent property owner with fire mitigation.
"The reason I went back was because I had some slash piles out there," he said, noting that the piles were untouched but the wall of fire was so hot that his vehicle began to overheat.
So, Martin moved away, and he and his helper Nick Genoshe called Balch and 911 and approached firefighters along Peregrine Way. The 911 dispatcher told them several calls had come in reporting the fire. Balch told them to begin evacuating stuff from her home.
And the firefighters the workers found nearby told them they were "waiting on orders" before engaging the blaze, Martin said.
In the days and weeks that followed, Martin and Genoshe became part of the investigation. Martin said the Sheriff's Office confiscated some of his equipment, his phone and his computer. He and Genoshe were questioned.
For weeks, Balch said she insisted to detectives that "If the boys are suspects, you need to charge them."
Martin said he took a lie detector test and was told he passed with flying colors.
"I haven't heard anything since that," Martin said, noting that he and his lawyer also have contacted investigators but have not received replies.
Martin and Balch are not happy with how they've been treated during the investigation. They assume they will never see their belongings again.
Martin said the equipment that was taken from him included chain saws, his Jeep and other things that he used for work on Balch's property and doing other jobs to support his five children.
"It's been a huge hinder in my life," he said. "People who had their houses burned down are in better shape than we are. We can't even get our stuff back."