A wildfire that wrought a path of destruction through communities outside of Boulder, Colorado, before New Years’ may have started on the property of a fundamentalist Christian sect, authorities said this week. The group has a long history in the Boulder area and runs several businesses — and has some disturbing religious practices that are coming back to light with this renewed attention.
Officials have narrowed the source of the Marshall Fire to a single neighbourhood outside of Boulder. After eliminating the possibility that the fire was started by downed power lines, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said in a news conference Monday that police are investigating whether the fire started on a property owned by the fundamentalist sect, known as the Twelve Tribes. He cautioned that finding out what happened could take weeks, however, and to not jump to conclusions about the fire’s causes.
A viral video posted last week appeared to show a shed on fire in that neighbourhood, which Pelle said the police were also investigating. A man living next to the Twelve Tribes property told the Denver Post that he saw parts of the sect’s field on fire Thursday morning as he was talking to some of the members.
“I don’t want to speculate, it’s still under investigation, but there is no possible way the fire started from any other place,” the man, Mike Zoltowski, told the Post.
Despite only burning for a day before being largely stopped by a snowstorm, the Marshall Fire was the most destructive in Colorado’s history, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and burning more than 6,000 acres south of Boulder. The fire, which forced 30,000 people to evacuate, spread rapidly thanks to dry conditions, high temperatures, and incredibly strong winds that are well outside the norm for this time of year in Colorado.
Those conditions, particularly the hot, dry weather, are being made worse by the climate crisis and leading to more intense wildfires. Eight of the 10 most destructive fires in Colorado history have occurred since 2010; some of the largest fires in the state’s history occurred back-to-back in the summer of 2020. The investigation into the Marshall Fire shows, though, how other possible human factors can be the spark that starts a firestorm.
A Twelve Tribes member, who identified himself only as Lee, told the Denver Post that the fire did not start on their property; he also said he was based in New Hampshire and was hearing that information secondhand. Someone who answered the phone at a different Colorado location directed the Post to the sheriff’s office and then hung up.
The Twelve Tribes’ website was down on Wednesday, but an archived version describes the group as an “emerging spiritual nation” that “follow[s] the pattern of the early church written in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, sharing all things in common.” The sect was founded in the early 1970s in Tennessee. As of the late 2000s, the group had between 2,500 and 3,000 members in 50 communities around the world, half of which are in the U.S. Twelve Tribes members can be found in multiple locations in Colorado; as of 2009, the compound near Boulder, where the fire may have started, had seven families and 13 single adults living on it. The sect, which mandates that both men and women wear their hair long, and that members don’t smoke, vote, or watch TV, runs businesses in the communities they’re in, including a cafe in Boulder.
Twelve Tribes has faced multiple accusations of child abuse, including forced labour in some of the sect’s factories. (Some of the most recent accusations were against the Boulder-based outpost and published in 2019.) The group has also been accused of teaching racist and anti-Semitic views in its strict adherence to Biblical teaching, including the idea that slavery is justified in the Bible and that Martin Luther King Jr. was “evil” for fighting for civil rights. Twelve Tribes’ founder also has written that gay people “deserved the death penalty” and that women should give birth without painkillers to atone for Eve’s original sin.
I haven’t even gotten into how the group’s eventual goal is to create an army of 144,000 male virgins to help with Christ’s second coming. While their beliefs and disturbing alleged practices didn’t necessarily lead to the fire, they add a layer for investigators to work through. Frankly, climate change doesn’t care how a fire starts, though. But it’s ensuring that whatever the source of ignition, the flames are more likely to spread in dangerous ways.
“The #MarshallFire has engulfed entire communities in a matter of hours and is already the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history,” Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg tweeted last week. “And it’s December 30th. If you’re not convinced we’re living in the midst of a climate crisis, wake the fuck up.”