Black Forest fire witch hunt? Sheriff rips fire chief in after-midnight rant

It's rare for law-enforcement officials to release statements after midnight -- and rarer still when the purpose of those statements is to tear one of their peers a new one.

But that's what happened at 12:30 a.m. this morning, when El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa issued a rant accusing Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey of irresponsibility when saying this year's incredibly destructive Black Forest fire appeared to have been intentionally set. Details and fire videos below.

Firefighters extinguish a Black Forest fire hot spot in this image from June.
Firefighters extinguish a Black Forest fire hot spot in this image from June.
National Forest Service

Harvey spoke with both KKTV and KRDO-TV in Colorado Springs.

The latter notes that the blaze, which started on June 11, damaged or destroyed 523 homes and killed two people before finally being extinguished. The final price tag: an estimated $85 million. See a slew of Black Forest fire videos below.

Bob Harvey on KRDO.
Bob Harvey on KRDO.

Since then, investigators have been hard at work determining what started the conflagration. So it was big news when Harvey told KRDO that the fire was "human caused and appears intentional."

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He added that this conclusion was shared by "outside experts" with whom he'd been collaborating. In his view, "I think the worst thing is this person still is out there."

At some point after KRDO broadcast these claims last night, Maketa presumably hit the ceiling. Hence, an after-midnight press release with the all-caps headline "EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF TERRY MAKETA FINDS REMARKS MADE BY FIRE CHIEF DISTURBING."

Indeed, he did. Here's the complete statement, which doesn't shy away from terms like "witch hunt," "knee jerk," "reckless" and "irresponsible:"

"Do not buy into Chief Harvey's claims until it's confirmed by the actual agency that has been the lead of the investigation and will base its findings on indisputable scientific evidence that can withstand the scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Right now that isn't the case. His comments are nothing more than an attempt to mislead the public and a mere witch hunt. Numerous national experts and federal resources have been involved in this investigation and have not and cannot substantiate Chief Harvey's unqualified knee jerk claims. 'Human caused' has been known for a long time but this Chief is not involved in the investigation nor qualified to offer legal and scientific evidence. He does not know the point of origin and has been less than truthful about other circumstances with this disaster and just may be merely covering his own mishandling of this event in an attempt to avoid responsibility for allowing the fire to get out of hand. Furthermore, this Chief didn't even know homes were burning at a time several were engulfed and never even requested evacuations of nearby households as the fire rapidly grew out of control, clearly placing citizen's safety in jeopardy. It's an injustice that he has chosen to jump to these unjustified and inconclusive assumptions without any effort to coordinate with local investigative authorities that have expended extensive resources to identify the cause and manner of this serious tragedy. Chief Harvey's comments are reckless, irresponsible and lack what is in the best interests of the community following this tragedy."

Would Maketa have put things differently if he'd waited a few hours to cool off? Maybe -- but there's something refreshing about hearing a public official saying exactly what he means. And in his view, it's much too early to say the Black Forest fire was intentionally set -- and might qualify as arson.

Continue for videos of the Black Forest fire shared in our previous coverage.   Black Forest fire videos:

Continue to see more Black Forest fire videos.   More Black Forest fire videos:

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our News archive circa June 19: "Update: Robin and Mark Herklotz ID'd as Black Forest fire victims, 509 homes destroyed."


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