Boulder County authorities zeroed in on a neighborhood they believe to be the origin of the Marshall fire but have yet to determine a cause, Sheriff Joe Pelle said Sunday.
Authorities said the fire likely started near Marshall Road and Colorado 93, and they are working with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to pinpoint what sparked it. The explosive, wind-driven fire consumed nearly 1,000 homes and businesses, becoming the state’s most destructive in history.
“It is an open and active investigation and we are bringing in the best people we can bring in,” Pelle said during an afternoon media briefing in Boulder, noting investigators are making “good progress.”
A search warrant was executed on private property as part of the hunt to determine the fire’s cause, but Pelle declined to disclose the location or name the property owner.
The sheriff said the office was aware of a “viral video” showing a shed on fire, which has fueled social media speculation over whether it caused the fire. Pelle said it’s not clear if the shed or anything around it could have been the origin, or if flames started somewhere else and spread there.
Pelle added that investigators have talked to people about what sparked the fire, but didn’t specify anyone. He also declined to comment when asked if anyone is cooperating with authorities.
The outcome of the investigation is “vital,” Pelle said. “There’s so much at stake.”
Gov. Jared Polis and other officials also met in Boulder on Sunday to discuss promised Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance for the Boulder area, and to relay an update about the search for three people who went missing after the fire.
One of the people reported missing — and feared dead — has been found “alive and well,” Pelle confirmed.
The person, an elderly man, is from Superior, the sheriff said without providing details. Efforts to track down the two other missing people are underway.
“We’re still looking for a male in the Marshall area and a female in Superior, and the teams are there today as we speak with dogs, with search teams trying to see if they can locate and recover anything,” Pelle told The Colorado Sun.
Polis toured the burn area Sunday morning with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and congressional leaders. While briefing members of the media, Polis recounted “harrowing” scenes he took in, including abandoned shells of cars burned beyond recognition.
“This is really a crisis in fast motion the way that this has quickly moved to destroy close to 1,000 homes and many more damaged,” Polis said.
President Joe Biden on Saturday approved a disaster declaration for Colorado. FEMA has sent about 100 employees to Colorado to aid in its recovery efforts and will continue to deploy more staffers in the coming days and weeks, Criswell said. Among the most critical priorities to address is short-term and long-term housing needs for impacted families.
“I know that this is going to be a long road to recovery,” Criswell said.
The Marshall fire destroyed 991 homes and businesses and damaged another 127 structures, an official count found. That’s roughly twice the number of homes destroyed in Colorado’s next-most destructive fire, the Black Forest fire, which leveled 489 houses north of Colorado Springs in 2013.
Residents whose homes have been destroyed or damaged by the Marshall fire can apply for grants from FEMA, which is also offering financial assistance to affected cities through a reimbursement program, agency spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said. The Small Business Association is also making low-interest loans available to homeowners, offering $2,000 loans to those facing property damage greater than the amount they insured for. Additionally, $40,000 loans are available for families who lost property in their home above and beyond what was insured.
The state has created a “unified assistance center” where people can go to get help from FEMA, insurance agencies and nonprofits. The center is located at 1755 S. Public Road in Lafayette and will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. this week.
Rising temperatures Sunday were clearing the way into areas left decimated by the Marshall fire, assisting the work of recovery crews searching for remains with cadaver dogs. Authorities previously said their searches were hampered by snow piled on ruined foundations after up to 10 inches fell on parts of the affected area.
Denver’s 9News identified the missing Superior resident as 91-year-old Nadine Turnbull, who was last seen in her burning home by a family member who was forced to flee.
The change in weather — from sub-zero temperatures overnight to a high of 40 degrees Sunday — was also expected to aid efforts to restore power and gas to thousands of people who lost service after the fire.
By Sunday afternoon, roughly 1,600 people were without power. Roughly 1,000 of those were inside the burn zone, and the rest in remote areas where restoration takes longer, Xcel Energy said.
The utility, which has sent out more than 400 crews to repair and restore services, has had about 100,000 customers affected by power outages since wind gusts tore through Boulder County starting Thursday morning, Xcel Energy Colorado President Alice Jackson said.
Many of the homes that lack power inside the burn zone “won’t be able to receive it,” Jackson said.
Utility crews have been going home by home and business by business to identify which buildings can and cannot receive electric services.
Xcel Energy has also been working to reboot natural gas services after having to shut off gas services amid the Marshall fire. About 13,000 customers had their natural gas service turned off, and about 1,400 of them have had their gas services restored so far, Jackson said. Those crews are also stopping place by place to reactivate service, she said.
Amid widespread outages, the Red Cross shelter at the YMCA in Lafayette housed 124 evacuees, up from 112 the first night. The number of visitors expected to stay overnight Sunday dropped to 30, after many people were cleared to go home, Red Cross spokesman John Seward said.
The Red Cross is making progress on finding short-term housing for those who remain, he said.
Among those taking shelter was Nicole Young, 38, who’s waiting for word on when she can get into her storage unit in Superior, and if her belongings survived. A former University of Colorado student, she got fed up paying Boulder rents and put what she owned in storage and went to work as a long-haul trucker.
Young was in Texas when she heard about the fires. She dropped off her truck and headed to Colorado.
“My whole life is in that storage unit,” she said. “My grandparents’ heirlooms, my vinyl collection. For now, I’m just sitting here feeling hopeless and pointless.”
While she figured out her next steps, a constant procession of visitors came to drop off blankets, toiletries, clothes, food and pet food.
Molly Olk of Denver brought bedding.
“I used to live in Boulder, and this situation just makes my heart hurt,” she said. “I hope this is helpful.”