Even as authorities in Colorado continued to search for two residents reported missing in the disastrous Marshall Fire, the local sheriff said Monday that his office has also pivoted to investigate the origins of the blaze.
“It is in full force and full swing,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said at a news conference.
The sheriff’s office confirmed over the weekend that it had served a search warrant at a property seen at least partly ablaze in the early stages of the fire, which ultimately consumed nearly 10 square miles, destroyed 991 homes and damaged 127 other structures. But Pelle said Monday that that shouldn’t indicate the inquiry’s direction just yet.
“We’re going to take our time and be methodical,” he said. “Because the stakes are huge.”
Insurance companies will field millions of dollars of claims from homeowners whose residences were destroyed by the fire, which is believed to have started about 11 a.m. Thursday in Boulder County northwest of the towns of Superior and Louisville.
Another blaze, the Middle Fork Fire, separated from the Marshall Fire by 12 miles and the city of Boulder, was reported about a half-hour earlier, but it was quickly contained as the southern blaze began to dominate the terrain.
The Marshall Fire found fuel in the foothills and in neighborhoods along part of the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, in suburbs only about 20 miles from Denver. According to the city of Boulder, the undeveloped area is rich with evidence of its Native American past and has featured “patches of ponderosa pine forest, a rich diversity of foothills and prairie shrubs, tallgrass and mixed grass communities, and wet meadows.”
The National Weather Service measured winds of 70 to 115 mph in the Rocky Mountain foothills Thursday. The blaze came during the warmest Dec. 1-27 stretch ever recorded in Denver. And it came during “record dryness” for the region, federal forecasters said.
Michael Rohde, the CEO of an eponymous consultancy in Southern California that helps governments and developers draw up wildfire evacuation plans, investigate fires and plan fire-resistant communities, said the Boulder County blaze was shocking in its speed and seamless transition from wild land to American suburbia.
The Marshall Fire showed, he said, that city living won’t necessarily insulate people from wildfires as they become faster and more intense, most likely as a result of global warming.
“We’re susceptible everywhere, especially in the Western United States,” Rohde said.
On Friday, the first accumulating snow of the winter helped the effort to snuff out the flames, and by New Year’s Day the blaze was 62 percent surrounded. Containment has continued to grow, having reached 74 percent Sunday.
But entire neighborhoods appeared to have been flattened by the shockingly quick blaze overnight Thursday. More than half the homes in the burn area were destroyed. And the missing, presumed to be dead by because where they lived is now rubble covered by what the sheriff estimated was 8 to 9 inches of snow, could add gravity to the investigation.
The Colorado Division of Insurance planned a virtual town hall Tuesday so victims could get guidance on filing claims related to the blaze. Local leaders on Monday opened a disaster assistance center staffed with people who can help victims file insurance claims, find food and transportation and get temporary housing with the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I met FEMA administrators from Mississippi and Texas and Georgia that are on the job helping people with some of the emergency FEMA help that they can provide,” Gov. Jared Polis said at Monday’s news conference.
“This is going to be a long road back for so many families,” he added.
President Joe Biden on Friday approved a major disaster declaration for Colorado, which would streamline federal assistance for the Marshall Fire’s victims.
Pelle said over the weekend that his office was getting help from U.S. Forest Service investigators “who are experienced and highly talented in investigating major fires in other states.”
Investigators have been interviewing “dozens of people” to track the fire’s beginnings, he said.
Rohde, the consultant who has been involved with numerous wildfire investigations, said the weather was so ideal for a catastrophic blaze that the possibilities are numerous, including concurrent starts at separate locations.
Pelle indicated Sunday that he favored a human origin story for the state’s most destructive fire.
“Something ignited the fire on a red flag day,” he said at a news conference, referring to days when campfires are prohibited. “And our job and responsibility, and our quest, is to determine what started that fire, ignited, and I don’t have a definitive or final answer for you yet.”
Dennis Romero is a breaking news reporter for NBC News Digital.