Former Black Forest fire investigator’s interview stirs emotions amid unresolved probe

Former Black Forest fire investigator’s interview stirs emotions amid unresolved probe

19 October 2016

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USA —  After the latest theory about the cause of the Black Forest fire went public Tuesday night, one northern El Paso County resident close to the recovery effort was angry about the effects it could have on a community trying to move forward.

“It’s time to move on,” said Ed Bracken, who lives on Milam Road less than two miles from the fire’s ignition point determined by investigators in 2013. “We want to move forward and on with our lives.”

Although Bracken is one of the founders of Black Forest Together, an organization focused on recovery and mitigation, he was speaking as a private citizen Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after a local television news report featuring a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office investigator hit the airwaves.

In the report that aired Tuesday on Fox21 news, former Detective Mark Pfoff said embers from a raging fire in a fireplace not far from the ignition point could have started the more than 14,000-acre blaze that erupted June 11, 2013. The fire destroyed almost 500 homes and killed Marc and Robin Herklotz.

Pfoff confirmed that investigators obtained a search warrant for a home that was being renovated around the time of the fire. He said that the search of the premises revealed evidence in the fireplace that kitchen cabinets had been cut up into small pieces and incinerated. Pfoff also confirmed that the chimney didn’t have a suitable spark arrester to keep hot embers from escaping.

With winds gusting at up to 60 mph, temperatures above 95 degrees and severely dry fuels in the area, conditions were ripe for a quick ignition. Pfoff and other experts told Fox21 that an ember could have flown multiple miles, struck a slash pile near the ignition site, and set the forest on fire.

The fire had been previously determined to be human caused. But no one knows more than three years later whether it was accidental or set on purpose, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder told The Gazette on Wednesday.

Elder did confirm that the theory reported by Pfoff is one that is being considered in the continuing investigation.

“We have a few (theories),” Elder said. “We’re still working on a couple of them. I don’t know that I’d want to rank them. They all get equal credibility until we can definitively eliminate the specific causes. They remain active pieces of investigation.”

According to Elder, his office, which is the lead investigating agency for the Black Forest fire, is hesitant to reveal information about any of the theories being investigated. Elder said Pfoff should not have commented about the investigation. And he said his office won’t comment until the case is closed.

“We have to remember that two people lost their lives, and this could be a homicide investigation,” he said. “There is no statute of limitations when it comes to a homicide investigation. And until we can eliminate all possibilities with the exception of one that we believe is the cause, we would never comment on it. It’s dangerous.”

Former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa’s office announced the case to be “cold” in November 2014. But Elder said his office has an arson investigator and a general investigator who can pick up the file from time to time and continue to search for clues.

Former Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey also chimed in on the theory Pfoff told Fox21 news.

“I know that that was looked into, but I never considered it at all,” Harvey said, noting that he was not allowed to participate in the Sheriff’s Office investigation even though he was one of the first responders at the scene.

Harvey said the Black Forest Fire Department did its own investigation.

“In the end when I put forth my evidence, I only had one (theory),” Harvey said.

Harvey was eventually fired from the Black Forest Fire Department. He filed a lawsuit in October 2015, claiming defamation, emotional harm and wrongful termination.

When asked if his theory was in line with that of Pfoff’s report, Harvey said, “No,” but wouldn’t elaborate further because, “It’s still an ongoing investigation.”

The Gazette contacted Pfoff on Wednesday, but the former investigator wouldn’t talk more on what he had told the TV station.

“I think it was the right thing to do what I did,” Pfoff said. “(Fox21) had their info. I basically was just confirming what they found.”

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