BLACK FOREST, Colo. — In the summer of 2013, the Black Forest Fire burned 14,280 acres and destroyed 489 homes.
The fire also killed two people.
To this day, it remains the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.
The fire started on June 11 and was declared 100 percent contained on June 20.
The cost to fight the fire totaled $9.23 million and losses from the fire exceeded $420 million.
For those that live in Black Forest, it’s been three years of not knowing the cause.
Tuesday night, we are revealing a theory not previously known to the public or the media.
The only thing we know about the fire’s cause – according to investigators – is that it was determined to be man-made.
In the last month, FOX21 News has learned of some evidence that points to a potential cause of the fire.
The evidence, given to us by an anonymous source, links a home in Black Forest to the cause.
We did some additional investigating to see if what we were given had an validity, and in our investigation we found a former El Paso County Sheriff’s detective that not only confirmed the evidence but also says in his mind, this is exactly what caused the Black Forest Fire.
“Based on the totality of the investigation and everything we looked into, every lead we followed up on and everything we investigated, every person we talked to there is no doubt in my mind, the most viable explanation for how that fire started is this scenario,” said Detective Mark Pfoff.
Pfoff worked for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office for 17 years, 10 of which were as a detective.
“I was called in to investigate on the second day, I worked exclusively on the fire for the next two to three weeks,” Pfoff said. “I wrote many of the search warrants involved in this case. I’m the individual that handed over the search warrant.”
In fact, Pfoff handed the search warrant to a homeowner of the property in question.
“[I] told him we wanted to talk to him about things concerning his property,” Pfoff said.
Those things included a remodeling job, where Pfoff says instead of putting old cabinets in a rented dumpster, they appeared to be burning them in two fireplaces in the middle of summer.
“We found some large construction bags, we opened those up, dumped all the wood on the floor and you could line up the wood and they were all 10 to 12 inches in width, it appeared they were cutting up the cabinets and they were burning them in the fireplace on the main level and the stove in the lower level,” Pfoff said.
In a picture shown to FOX21 by a source close to the case, you can see soot from the fires in the fireplace covering most of the mantle and running all the way to the ceiling.
“It was pretty obvious that at some point there was a raging fire in that fireplace,” he said.
“We were told that there was a missing spark arrestor on top of the fireplace is this correct?” I asked.
“That is definitely correct. During the execution of a search warrant at the property multiple detectives went up on the roof and took pictures and inspected the top of the chimneys. Two ceramic flues – one was semi-covered by what appeared to be a homemade spark arrestor, not very effective at all and obviously homemade, the other ceramic flue had nothing on top of it” Pfoff said.
On the day the fire started it was a record 97 degrees and the wind was blowing at 37 miles per hour with gusts up to 47 miles per hour.
According to Wildland Fire experts, those are great conditions for easily carrying an ember from an uncovered fireplace into a wooded area.
“I hear stories back from firefighters who’ve dealt with embers being thrown two miles or even had reports of 6 miles,” said wildfire expert Keith Worley.
Because the cabinet pieces were burned with the hardware, Pfoff says investigators attempted to link any metal from the fire place ashes to the fires point of origin.
“I don’t think there was a conclusive connection between the two, I believe there was medal shards that were found at the point of origin, there were no accelerants at point of origin. The ability to match metal pieces to the point of origin was inconclusive,” Pfoff said.
He added, “What makes it most likely that this happened, the fact that there were neighbors that were doing fire mitigation on the property where the fire started and we documented that they had cut trees down and removed firewood, but had multiple slash piles that they had not yet removed. So between the combination of a chimney with no spark arrestor and slash burn piles, down wind, basically kindling, it’s almost created the perfect storm for the fire to be created.”
I asked if there were any other theories.
“There were other theories investigated and eliminated, my understanding when I left the sheriff’s office the only theory still active as a possibility of the fire was this one” Pfoff said.
“There is a number of theories, that we won’t go into, but that is a theory” Sheriff Bill Elder said.
Elder wasn’t the sheriff at the time of the fire, but after 22 months on the job, he is fully up to speed on the investigation.
“I think it’s safest for the investigation that we don’t go into the details beyond that it’s still an open investigation. There are many pieces of that investigation were looking at. That is part of the theories. That is one of the theories that is still in play,” Elder said.
“On that theory can your investigator give us an update?” I asked.
“The dichotomy is, sharing the information publicly exposes pieces of an investigation, that we don’t want exposed, that truly if the public knew that we could literally give away one or two small tidbits of information of evidence. It could lend itself to never solving the case. I get the public wants to know, i get it. There’s where the public trust comes in,” Elder said.
“Devil’s advocate – if you put out a theory could you not maybe flush out more people that might know and actually be able to back it up?” I asked.
“Possibly, possibly,” Elder said. “But we are assuming that even if we did put out a theory that it would create a solution to the investigation, if however we believe that it’s an investigation that can be solved and if we put out the wrong theory, or we put out a ruse or we put out one that we may suspect but is not accurate, doesn’t that tell people. They don’t have any idea what they are doing. They don’t have any idea what they are looking at.”
Pfoff says early in the investigation they didn’t want the public to know.
Now three years later, in his opinion, the case appears to be cold.
“There was a criminal investigation going on at the time. I think as long as that criminal investigation was active, there is certain information you don’t want to get out,” Pfoff said. “It’s been over three years since then. At this point an opportunity of a criminal investigation has probably been lost.”
I asked if they were close to closing this out.
“I would say, I would say we could close it relatively easy with the right information, whether or not we could ever make a criminal case out of it is a whole different world,” Elder said.
“There is nothing to hide at this point, the homeowner knows, Sheriff’s Office knows, the workers know. Nothing to lose in announcing, the only ones that don’t know are the homeowners of Black Forest who still fear an arsonist is out there,” Pfoff said.
I asked Pfoff why he was so willing to confirm information we obtained and he simply said the Black Forest community has a right to know, and he didn’t want them believing that there might be an arsonist out there running around.