Xcel’s slow response delayed Marshall fire investigation, sheriff says

Xcel Energy was at least partly to blame for the length of the Marshall fire investigation and the amount of time the community spent waiting for answers, the Boulder County sheriff said.

Sheriff Curtis Johnson, a leading official in the months-long investigation into the origin of the Marshall fire, told the Daily Camera the energy utility was slow to respond to requests for key information. The investigation found that the Marshall fire was caused, in part, by a disconnected Xcel power line.

According to Johnson, there had been requests for information from Xcel early in the investigation, but the company did not respond until late last year or early this year, about a year after the requests were made.

“That really slowed down the investigation,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t complete the work until we had access to documents we had requested (and) opportunities to interview Xcel employees, which we had made requests to do — all of that took a lot more time than it needed to.”

Johnson said if the requested information had been available sooner, the investigative report and its findings could have been shared much earlier, which could have been beneficial for the community.

“There was a lot of community frustration that I heard … people wanted to know the cause and origin of the fire,” he said. “We could have answered their questions and presented the findings much sooner and maybe relieved some of that frustration about why it was taking so long.”

The wind-driven Dec. 30, 2021, wildfire killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County. It remains the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, whose office was involved in the investigation, said Xcel had released a statement the day after the fire saying there were no downed power lines in the area of the fire.

“That was technically true and accurate, but certainly not complete,” he said. “They had a line that had become detached. It was banging around against the pole and the other lines. We only discovered that because of the investigation by the sheriff’s office and the work of outside experts.”

Dougherty also said that late in the investigation, the investigative team had also received a text message from an Xcel employee saying the employee thought Xcel may have started the fire.

But officials have noted that Xcel’s actions were not the only reason the investigation took nearly a year and a half. Both Johnson and Dougherty emphasized their belief that it was crucial to investigate the fire thoroughly and diligently.

“Years from now, when survivors and families that were impacted by the fire look back on it, we want to know that we reached the right outcome with the investigation, whether or not it took one year or two years or somewhere in between,” Dougherty said. “So from the very beginning, our top priority was, and remained, making sure we reached the right result.”

The nature of the fire and the investigation meant the process would likely take time, according to Dougherty, and there were “roadblocks” along the way. However, he said, “I’m confident that we’ve worked through each one of those obstacles to get everything we needed to have a complete investigation.”

Michelle Aguayo, a spokesperson for Xcel, shared a statement from the company saying it had “cooperated extensively” with the investigation.

“We provided extensive access to our records, equipment and employees, as well as videos and photographs and other data collected from third parties,” the statement read. “In addition, we voluntarily met twice with the sheriff’s office and the Boulder County district attorney to present information and answer questions. The sheriff’s office and the district attorney declined to share their analysis with Xcel Energy prior to their release so that Xcel Energy would have the opportunity to address deficiencies in the analysis.”

Xcel also denied in the statement that the ignition was related to the company’s power lines, pointing out that Dougherty had found no evidence of criminal liability or negligence on the company’s part.

Johnson, however, said he was “very confident” in the results of the investigation and that Xcel’s power lines had started one of the two fires that merged to become the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Residents, business operators and insurance companies have also filed lawsuits against Xcel in hopes of recovering damages from the fire.

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