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Top officials criticize Xcel for delaying Marshall Fire investigation

Boulder sheriff, district attorney say the power company blocked interviews, misled the public
Posted at 9:45 PM, Jul 28, 2023

BOULDER, Colo. — Top Boulder officials are now criticizing Xcel Energy for its handling of the investigation into the cause of the Marshall Fire.

Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson and District Attorney Michael Dougherty say the power giant worked to delay the investigation and attempted to block investigators from interviewing key employees.

“I am frustrated, personally, that Xcel was not more forthcoming or expedient in providing information for this investigation,” Johnson said.

The sheriff believes conclusions could have been reached months earlier had Xcel cooperated.

“I can’t speak for all ratepayers, but I know as someone who pays rates, that I would expect more from a company that I provide that much money to,” Johnson said.

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Stephanie Butzer
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At a June press conference, Johnson laid out findings for the cause of the most destructive fire in Colorado history that killed two people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and caused $2 billion in damages. Those findings — including a 29-page report from an outside engineering company retained to investigate the origin of the fire — concluded that Xcel power lines more than likely caused a second ignition point.

Xcel has publicly disputed these findings, releasing a statement the day of the press conference that read in part, “We strongly disagree with any suggestion that Xcel Energy’s power lines caused the second ignition.”

"Our thoughts are with the families and communities impacted by the devastating wildfire in Boulder County. We agree with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office report that the Marshall Fire started as a result of an ignition on a property (5325 Eldorado Springs Drive) previously reported to be affiliated with an entity called the Twelve Tribes, and that this ignition had nothing to do with Xcel Energy’s power lines. The Sheriff’s report cites several potential causes for a second ignition near the Marshall Mesa Trailhead that started roughly an hour after the first fire. We believe the second fire burned into an area already burned by the fire from the first ignition, and did not cause damage to any homes or businesses. We strongly disagree with any suggestion that Xcel Energy’s power lines caused the second ignition, which according to the report started 80 to 110 feet away from Xcel Energy’s power lines in an area with underground coal fire activity. Xcel Energy did not have the opportunity to review and comment on the analyses relied on by the Sheriff’s Office and believes those analyses are flawed and their conclusions are incorrect.  We have reviewed our maintenance records and believe the system was properly maintained. We operate and maintain our electric system consistent with leading energy service practices and we’re proud of our employees and the work they do to deliver safe, reliable and clean energy to our communities. As members of the Boulder community, we will continue to support our neighbors in this recovery."

That 29-page report came from engineering firm Jensen Hughes and concluded that wire from an Xcel power line became detached and produced electrical arcing. That arcing ignited the dry grasses below and created the second ignition point, according to the firm.

Paul Way, Jensen Hughes senior forensic engineer, said he was extremely confident in the report.

Boulder’s investigation also yielded a cellphone video taken almost 200 yards from the ignition point. It shows a floating power line detached from the pole in the moments after the fire had started.

Johnson pointed to a text message from an Xcel employee to demonstrate how the company worked to delay the investigation. Denver7 Investigates obtained that text message, which was sent minutes after the fire started, through an open records request.

The text, sent from an Xcel lineman to his supervisor, states, “I think our lines may have started this fire east of El Dorado.”

The lineman, Ryan Gomes, told investigators that was the conclusion he reached looking at the fire. Gomes’ meeting with investigators was recorded on a body-worn camera, which was obtained by Denver7 Investigates.

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office had to issue a warrant to obtain the text message, something Gomes said he was not aware of in his meeting with investigators.

Multiple sources close to the investigation say that was not Xcel’s only maneuver in attempting to delay the investigation. According to sources, Xcel blocked the interviews with employees and made statements that did not tell the full story.

On December 31, 2021 — the day after the fire — Boulder County’s Disaster Management team reported, after speaking with Xcel, that the company found no evidence of downed power lines where the fire was believed to have started. However, there was no mention of any floating lines.

Investigators are pointing to that statement as an example of Xcel keeping the whole story from the public. A downed power line would be defined as a line that is touching the ground. A floating line does not touch the ground, but could still start a fire. Investigators say it did in this case.

“Certainly a more complete communication would have been ‘no downed power lines, but there was a floating line located in the area that’s going to be looked at,’” said Dougherty.

Way agrees that Xcel could have said more.

“They didn’t say anything that was wrong, but they didn’t say everything they could have said. And some of the things they said were just sort of misleading,” he said.

Xcel declined a request for an on-camera interview, saying it stood by the statement released after the June press conference. Dougherty previously announced that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with the origins of the fire, but several victims have filed lawsuits against Xcel.

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