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Waldo, Black Forest Fire investigations lurch to a standstill years later

Burning mystery



Four years ago, a thin plume of gray smoke spiraled into the sky from Waldo Canyon just before noon on June 23. Within hours, the smoke billowed into bulky dark clouds that filled the western horizon.

The Waldo Canyon Fire, which ignited in rough Ute Pass terrain on a sizzling-hot Saturday, led to the evacuation of 32,000 people, two deaths, a scar covering more than 18,000 acres and the destruction of 347 homes.

Costing roughly $18 million to fight, the fire was labeled the most destructive in the state's history.

Until June 11, 2013. That's when the Black Forest Fire broke out in brush near Shoup Road and Highway 83. It destroyed 509 homes, burned 14,000 acres and killed two people. That fire's cost topped $11 million.

Each fire required intervention by elite firefighting forces of federal Type 1 teams, both led by Rich Harvey.

Four years later, though permits have been issued to rebuild 309 homes from Waldo and 311 from Black Forest, the causes of both fires remain a mystery, and barring a new revelation, they might go unsolved forever.

"I would love to say an arrest is imminent, but I can't say that," said El Paso County Sheriff's Commander Richard Hatch, who oversees the still-active Black Forest Fire investigation.

Colorado Springs Police Sgt. John Koch, a former investigator on the Waldo fire, says investigators are at a stalemate without a tip or new development that would unlock the puzzle.

"We still encourage members of the public with knowledge of suspicious activity to come forward," Koch says.

According to the National Park Service, up to 90 percent of wildland fires in the U.S. are caused by humans, ranging from unattended campfires to intentional acts of arson. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning or lava.

But human-caused fires are, overall, less destructive than those caused by nature. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that 61,913 fires per year, on average, were caused by humans from 2001 through 2015, and those fires burned an average of 2.4 million acres per year. Lightning-caused fires, the center says, ignited about 10,500 fires during that time that burned an average of 3.8 million acres per year.

Four years after the Waldo fire, memories have faded and two law enforcement agencies couldn't even say with certainty which agency was leading the investigation.

When contacted by the Independent for an update, Colorado Springs Police Sgt. Tim Stankey said El Paso County Sheriff's Office is the lead agency, because the fire started outside the city. CSPD, he said, is only focusing on the deaths of William Everett, 74, and his wife, Barbara Everett, 73, who lived on Rossmere Street in Mountain Shadows where most of the homes burned. The coroner ruled they died from the fire.

But Sheriff's Office spokesperson Jackie Kirby told the Indy the CSPD is the lead agency for the Waldo fire.

Regardless, the Waldo fire remains unsolved. Koch is circumspect, refusing to disclose anything, including possibilities that have been ruled out. But investigators told the public months afterward that a person was to blame.

Commander Adrian Vasquez, CSPD's lead investigator on the fire, repeated that a year ago to KKTV Channel 11 when he said the fire was human-caused but didn't know if it was intentional or accidental.

"We know that it was somebody who was at that point of origin and started the fire," Vasquez told KKTV. "We hold out hope, and hope that at some point we get some information from somebody and it comes forward and tells us who is responsible."

Even a $100,000 reward from an anonymous donor — offered in September 2012 for information leading to the identification and arrest, if appropriate, of the person involved — didn't attract that crucial tidbit.

Stankey says he's not sure the reward is still available and that Vasquez says the last tip on the fire came about a year ago. But no "actionable" tip, leading to additional investigation, has been received for about two years, Vasquez told Stankey.

So that investigation appears dead in the water.

As for the Black Forest Fire, former Sheriff Terry Maketa's October 2014 investigative summary noted that although 223 indicators of burn patterns and fire artifacts were analyzed, the cause remains elusive.

Investigators concluded the fire started in a wooded draw near Shoup Road and Highway 83 with no man-made structures or utilities, leading them to rule out power lines, vehicles or gas leaks. Lightning also was ruled out, because of the 117 lightning strikes in the days leading up to the fire, all were more than three miles from the point of ignition.

"The only clearly established fact was that no natural causes existed and thus the fire was man-caused," the report says. "A potential cause associated with the metal particles [found at the starting point] can not be ruled out, or positively identified. A potential cause associated with an intentional ignition is not supported by the evidence or circumstances, but can not be completely ruled out. The origin of the fire is in an area that is not readily accessible from a roadway, allowing an easy escape, as is typical in intentionally set Wildland fires. There was no evidence of any other miscellaneous cause such as blasting, fireworks, welding, target shooting, etc."

Neither the investigators' interviews with numerous people who lived in the area nor following up on 244 leads "provided definitive evidence of how the fire started or who was responsible," according to the report.

The case was subsequently submitted for review to the District Attorney's Office, largely because it killed Marc Herklotz, 52, and his wife, Robin Herklotz, 50. The DA's Office concluded "no additional recommended follow-up work ... could be done."

Still, the case remains open, Hatch says. "That's one of those that we are almost constantly looking at and haven't forgotten about," he says. As recently as a couple weeks ago, someone called the department suggesting a follow-up interview, which Hatch says was conducted but without results.

"We keep our fingers crossed," he says.

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