BOULDER COUNTY — Just days after Boulder County Sheriff’s Office investigators went public with their determination that an “unmoored” Xcel Energy Inc. powerline was likely a partial contributor to the start of the massively destructive Marshall Fire in late December 2021, a group of more than two dozen Boulder County homeowners, renters and business operators have joined in a lawsuit that accuses the utility of negligence.
“Because of Xcel’s corporate policy of putting profits over public safety,” the complaint said, “plaintiffs and others like them have had their homes, businesses, ranches and farms damaged and destroyed, lost income, money and business, suffered significant expenses and emotional trauma, and will spend years trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.”
Investigators last week said the fire, which killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses, had two root causes: high winds that uncovered a smoldering, days-old fire at the residence of the Twelve Tribes religious group and the malfunctioning Xcel powerline.
In addition to Xcel, the lawsuit, filed late last week in Boulder County District Court, names multiple unidentified John/Jane Does as defendants. The complaint does not specifically mention the Twelve Tribes group, members of which live at a compound at 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive in Boulder County.
Residents of that home burned material in a yard on Dec. 24, a week prior to the start of the Marshall fire, buried it and assumed that the flames were extinguished, investigators said.
Twelve Tribes js an international organization with several thousand members that has been accused by past members of labor exploitation, child abuse and racist teachings.
Soon after the high winds on Dec. 30, 2021, transformed the smoldering material into a blaze at Eldorado Springs Drive, “hot particles discharged from an Xcel Energy powerline” several thousand feet away from the initial fire and started a new blaze in a nearby grassy area,” Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson said last week. Investigators found that this line malfunction was likely not related to the Eldorado Springs Drive residential fire; however, the two blazes quickly converged and together started the Marshall Fire.
Officials do not plan to file charges against any person or company.
Xcel, which declined to comment on the recent lawsuit, told BizWest last week that it disagrees with the conclusion of the Marshall Fire investigation.
“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,” Xcel said. “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.”
The utility “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,” Xcel said. “We have reviewed our maintenance records and believe the system was properly maintained.
Xcel, the lawsuit complaint said, “has a documented history of causing fires in Colorado.” The suit cites the 2003 Overland Fire in Boulder County as an example.
“On October 29, 2003, high winds were blowing across the Colorado Front Range in the approach of an autumn cold front. In the vicinity of Jamestown, those winds broke a 20-foot tall tree, which was blown into a 13,200 volt power line,” according to Boulder County’s official summary of the event. “That line snapped, crashed into the ground sparking a wildland fire.”
Xcel was sued by Jamestown residents after the Overland Fire, and the case was settled in 2005. Financial terms were not disclosed, according to media reports from that time.
The lawsuit also cites a 2007 fire at the Cabin Creek hydroelectric generating plant in Georgetown that killed five workers. While Xcel was ultimately acquitted in a workplace safety criminal case, the utility was tagged with a $150,000 fine from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Last week’s lawsuit is separate from a class-action lawsuit filed last year by Eldorado Liquor owners George and Lisa Kupfner that claimed that the utility “substantially caused or contributed to the cause, origin and continuation.”
The lawsuit is Sellers et al. v. Xcel Energy Inc. et al.,case number 2023CV67, filed June 8 in Boulder County District Court.