Shed fire on land of ‘cult’ eyed as cause of devastating Colorado blazes that destroyed 1,000 homes

·4 min read

Colorado investigators believe a wildfire that devastated communities ahead of the new year could have stemmed from a shed fire on land occupied by members of fundamentalist Christian sect the Twelve Tribes.

“The fire originated somewhere in that neighbourhood,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Sunday at a news conference. “There was a viral video that was posted of a shed on fire.”

He added that investigators did not know whether or not “that shed started the fire or whether it was secondary”, and that finding the cause of the fire was “complicated and it’s under snow”.

“We will sort it out,” he told reporters. “It’s an active, open deal and the outcome of that investigation is vital, there is so much at stake. So we are going to be careful.”

A resident of the neighbourhood meanwhile told The Denver Post that he thought he witnessed the beginning of the blaze next-door to him on Thursday.

Mike Zoltowski said he asked three people sheltering from strong winds at a property owned by the Twelve Tribes about a small fire in a field.

The individuals told him that “One of our dwellings caught on fire”, it was reported.

“I don’t want to speculate,” he said on Sunday. “It’s still under investigation, but there is no possible way the fire started from any other place”.

The religious sect reportedly denied wrongdoing, despite other accounts of illegal burnings on the same property not far from Boulder.

The Twelve Tribes, started in the 1970s in Tennessee, is a fundamentalist sect which believes in a return to first-century Christianity and believes all other denominations are fallen.

According to a 2018 article in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s magazine, the “Christian fundamentalist cult born in the American South in the 1970s, is little-known to much of the country, and on first impression its communes and hippie-vibed restaurants and cafes can seem quaint and bucolic.

“But beneath the surface lies a tangle of doctrine that teaches its followers that slavery was “a marvelous opportunity” for black people, who are deemed by the Bible to be servants of whites, and that homosexuals deserve no less than death.”

The group has previously been investigated for flouting child labour laws and has butted heads repeatedly with authorities in Germany for its insistence on homeschooling.

Authorities have meanwhile confirmed that almost 1,000 homes burned in suburbs between Denver and Boulder, and that more than 6,000 acres were scorched.

Two people were still missing on Monday, the same day a Disaster Assistance centre opened in Boulder County “to help people who lost homes in or were displaced by the fire with a range of services including property loss and filing claims for assistance, financial and food assistance, mental health supports, transportation, and more,” a press release announced.

Crews continued working to restore power and gas, with more than 18,000 space heaters distributed to residents as of Sunday.

Also Sunday, FEMA Director Deanne Criswell - a firefighter who spent much of her life and career in Colorado - toured the devastated regions with Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who declared a state of emergency Thursday.

“We’re bringing our federal teams together to work side-by-side with the state, the county and the city officials that have been impacted to develop what that housing strategy is going to be, both the immediate needs to put people into safe places as well as what the long-term housing needs might be as we work together to rebuild these communities,” Ms Criswell said.

CU Boulder, after a combination of Omicron and the fires, has announced the spring semester at the university remote as the region struggled to figure out logistics. Displaced families of elementary and high school students were attempting to figure out what to do, as well.

Gov. Jared Polis told her rebuilding will be a tough decision for a lot of people. “Some people will settle elsewhere, but those who want to stay in the same school will have to find somewhere nearby.”

Superior Mayor Clint Folsom, who has been living in a hotel since his family lost three of their four houses, told CBS that he had “teared up at times at the extent of loss.”

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