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Languishing Colorado wildfire investigations feed rumor mill

By: matt steiner
December 21, 2013
photo - A firefighter fights a blaze in a garage in Black Forest on Table Rock Rd. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)
A firefighter fights a blaze in a garage in Black Forest on Table Rock Rd. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette) 

Timing is everything.

A string of small wildfires in Teller County in early summer 2012 were followed closely by the Waldo Canyon fire in June of that year, quickly heating up the arson rumor mill that continues to frustrate investigators. The unresolved investigations also have added to suspicions surrounding the Black Forest fire in northern El Paso County in June 2013.

All of the fires were human caused, officials have said. The Teller fires are being investigated as arsons. But 18 months after the Waldo Canyon fire started and more than six months after the start of the Black Forest fire, investigators say they can't say if the fires were intentional or accidental.

"We just don't know at this point," Colorado Springs Police detective Lt. Adrian Vasquez said this week, adding that investigators won't label the Waldo Canyon investigation as arson-related until they find and interview potential suspects or witnesses.

But nobody has come forward, even with the temptation of a $100,000 reward offered by an anonymous donor.

"The next step is to solicit, solicit, solicit," said Vasquez.

The reward is available for anyone who supplies tips that lead to an arrest. The tip line number is 385-2222.

Investigators of the Black Forest fire are leaning toward an "accidental" determination, but pressure to answer questions about the cause led to a recent heated debate between officials and has re-ignited rumors.

Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey sparked the debate with comments in mid November that the fire was "probably" intentionally set. El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa criticized Harvey, saying investigators from state and federal agencies continue to find evidence that points to the fire being accidental.

"His comments are nothing more than an attempt to mislead the public and a mere witch hunt," Maketa said in a Nov. 21 statement. "Numerous national experts and federal resources have been involved in this investigation and have not and can not substantiate Chief Harvey's unqualified, knee-jerk claims."

The Black Forest fire started June 11, burning more than 14,000 acres, destroying almost 500 homes and killing two people.

El Paso County Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Kramer echoed statements Maketa made earlier this year about the Black Forest investigation.

Kramer said in an email sent Dec. 13 that wildfire investigations are "challenging and tedious from the start." Hundreds of pieces of evidence found near the point of origin must be examined, sometimes over and over again, in search of accelerants and other clues.

No obvious accelerant were uncovered in the evidence collect from the place where the Black Forest fire started, just one of multiple clues that have pushed investigators to lean toward a conclusion that fire was accidentally started.

As the forensics laboratories move an investigation closer to a ruling of accidental, that evidence tends to get pushed to the back burner when more pressing cases must be examined.

"As those lab requests are made, our requests don't necessarily take priority over other requests they have from any number of agencies," Kramer said.

While Black Forest evidence continues to be scrutinized, examination of physical evidence from the Waldo Canyon fire was completed several months ago.

Vasquez said his detectives check in on the tip line monthly and are simply waiting for someone to come forward with strong leads or even a confession. Without testimony from the person who set the fire or an eyewitness, the investigation is at a stand-still. Vasquez said nobody has called the tip line in recent months.

"There really isn't a lot to do right now," he said.

The Waldo Canyon and Black Forest probes involve homicide investigations because in each blaze two people died.

Vasquez said the Waldo Canyon fire could be considered a "cold case," a label usually used for homicides that have gone unsolved for 12 months after the crime.

The Waldo Canyon blaze started in hot conditions with ground fuels tinder dry from a drought that has plagued southern Colorado for years.

The fire leapt out of control on the afternoon of June 23 before eventually burning more than 18,000 acres, killing two and destroying almost 350 homes in western Colorado Springs.

The fire might have been contained early, but crews searching the area on smoke reports made in the evening of June 22 couldn't find the fire and a 911 report from a jogger of "smoldering fire" near Waldo Canyon early on June 23 went unheeded after a dispatcher failed to follow protocol, Maketa said in May 2013.

The 25 Teller County fires that began June 18, 2012 and lasted for about a week, are believed to have been set by the same person. Sheriff Mike Ensminger said recently that a "person of interest" has been interviewed and has been linked to the case since just a few months after the fires started. He said no arrest has been made as evidence against the person is considered "strongly circumstantial" by the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office.

Because of the timing of the Teller and Waldo Canyon fires, the rumor mill has suggested that the culprit is one in the same. But because of the methods used, investigators don't believe the fires to be linked. The Teller arsons were all set within yards of escape roads while the Waldo Canyon blaze started more than a mile from any road and deep in a mountain canyon.

"We don't believe they are related," Vasquez said, pointing to the methods, evidence and "facts that don't match."

Vasquez said the point of origin of the Waldo Canyon fire has been narrowed down to "inches."

Ensminger was emphatic when asked whether the fires were related.

"I don't see how anyone with an educated mind could even come close to linking the two together," he said.

Whether most of the signs point away from any link, Vasquez said until the investigations are complete and the truth is known, it would be irresponsible for investigators to dismiss any possibility.

"We would not ever rule it out totally," he said.


Gazette reporter Andrea Sinclair contributed to this story.

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