News 5 Investigates

Jan 22, 2014 9:07 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Investigates: How much are taxpayers spending on Black Forest fire investigations?

While the Black Forest Fire Board's independent investigation is costing taxpayers more than $13,000 so far, News 5 has learned the investigation being conducted by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office isn't costing you any additional money.

In three days last June, the Black Forest fire burned more than 14,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and claimed two lives.

Two investigations into the devasting fire have people living there questioning why.

"It's my understanding that the jurisdiction for the investigation of the fire belongs with Sheriff Maketa," resident James Bialpando said.

He's right. Following the deaths of two people, the investigation by default turns criminal.

"Our investigators got going very early on this case," Lt. Jeff Kramer of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office said. "We initially started with trying to determine the area of origin."

The sheriff's office has interviewed more than 250 people and followed up on approximately 300 leads. 25 search warrants have been executed which has led to the confiscation of 172 pieces of evidence.

While progress is being made, there are still more questions than answers.

"It was human caused in some way, shape or form," Lt. Kramer said. "The efforts now have been to try to determine what exactly caused the fire."

As that investigation continues, the Black Forest Fire Board hired an independent team to look into Chief Bob Harvey's actions to see whether proper policies and procedures were followed.

During last week's board meeting, News 5 learned that investigation focuses on some of the very same elements the sheriff's office is looking into.

"We are the ones who have dedicated the resources from the beginning," Lt. Kramer said. "We are the ones who have gathered all of the information from the beginning."

So just how much is Sheriff Maketa's investigation costing you?

"We do not have to seek or provide some type of separate allocation of funds to conduct that investigation," Lt. Kramer said. "We don't have to go back to the citizens asking for additional tax dollars to conduct a certain investigation because our office is funded to do those very things already."

This makes some wonder what the fire board's purpose is in spending extra money on a separate investigation.

The fire board released the following statement last week, defending its investigation:

Last month this Board took specific action to engage the services of a skilled investigator to determine whether the District's response at the time of the June 11, 2013 "Black Forest Fire" was appropriate and timely. As many of you know there have been allegations that more could have been done, and should have been done, as this deadly and disastrous fire situation unfolded. We as a board wanted to get to the bottom of those allegations.

Since December 10th this investigation has involved the professional time of two investigators, one with a fire specialty, and to date numerous interviews, at least 40 at last count, have been conducted, and new lines of inquiry have been developed. Dave Fisher and Dave Daley have put in more than 200 hours of field work.

It's often difficult to know where an investigation will lead, but I can tell you that as a result of our investigators' work, other leads about the potential source and origin of the fire have developed. It is the District's responsibility to investigate the potential source and origin of fires within the District boundaries. Nonetheless, our investigators are also cognizant of their moral, ethical and legal responsibility to report those leads, and we have shared those with the Sheriff's Office. The District may additionally involve other law enforcement agencies as appropriate.

Using an investigative team, and having to hire a media relations specialist, is an entirely new enterprise for this fire district, and while we didn't ask for this role, we have made the commitment to see it through to a firm conclusion. We expect that the interviews, and reviews of logs, reports and timelines, will be wrapped up in the next few weeks. A final report should be complete by the time of our February meeting.

In keeping with our stated position, we will not engage in any guesswork about the contents of the anticipated report, or conduct dialogue with the media, about individual interviews, timeline, or other issues expected to be included in it, until the report is wrapped up and ready for public release. The Board of Directors itself has not yet reviewed materials related to the investigation, and is also anxious for the close of the investigation. This update is as much as we are able to provide at this time.

We thank you for your patience, your interest and trust in the District, and our belief that this is the proper course of action for the good of all of the residents of Black Forest.



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