June 29, 2012 -- Transcript of ABC News' Alex Perez's interview with Undersheriff Paula Presley of El Paso County in Colorado.
Paula Presley: But it's kind of isolated back there as well so essentially there's a lot of things that could happen. We don't have a lot of trouble up here. We have more trouble in the parking lot than we have actually on the trail, people petty crime, breaking in to cars and that type of stuff more property crime.
Alex Perez: So were walking up here so what's important about this area where we're going to now?
Paula Presley: This is a very popular trail and every weekend people, people flood this trail hiking and this is where its believe to be where the fire started much further up just off of the trail the firefighters have yet to get in there. Really, to establish the actual point of origin or where the fire began. And so I know there are a lot of questions about the investigative part of this as to whether or not this is arson or not. It's really important that they get to the point of origin before we can ever get to that determination.
Alex Perez: Describe for people who might not get it, the point of origin is key right?
Paula Presley: Absolutely. That will be key and will potentially give us evidence as to whether this truly was intentional, whether it was an arson or whether it could be natural or whether it was accidental.
Alex Perez: And describe just how difficult an investigation like that will be tough because there are thousands of people who come through here right?
Paula Presley: That's correct however since the time that this fire began, this has been closed off. Certainly there were people here on that day, however people were leaving this area very quickly once the fire began. And so it's been closed off since that time so there hasn't been any traveling, anybody up in here to really disturb what evidence may be there.
Alex Perez: There's a lot of forensics that's involved with this stuff. People don't think about.
Paula Presley: That's correct. It's not just real simple that somebody can walk up on a site and say okay this is how it all began. I mean there are cases like that where the fire investigators, arson investigators can tell very quickly you know whether there was accelerant used those types of things. But first of all, we have to get to that site and of course the priority right now is fighting the fire. Once the fires under control we have the firefighters are able to get back in here and arson investigators are able to get back in here and take a look at what is believed to be the point of origin. And then we'll be able to tell a lot more.
Alex Perez: In a situation like this, what makes you guys think that this was possibly arson or could be arson?
Paula Presley: Where it started and the day that this fire began we didn't have any storms. You know, there had been some started the previous week and the weeks prior to that from lightening. On that particular day there were no reports of lightening so that was something that we-certainly we haven't ruled anything out at this point in time but it's not believe to be the case. So certainly we can't really speculate, we can't say exactly what happened what the cause of this was but anytime we have a fire of undetermined origin, we're going to treat it as an arson. To investigate it. To ensure that it is thoroughly investigated and we get to the point of the origin and make sure that either rule out arson or determine that it is arson and continue the investigation from that point on.
Alex Perez: As a member of law enforcement you know you you look that all the work that fire fighters are putting in, you look at all the damage, isn't it upsetting that somebody would intentionally possibly do something like this?
Paula Presley: Absolutely. You know people I don't think really understand the devastation that they can cause you know and you know it can be as simple as throwing out a cigarette. Often cases, often times that's not the case that they are intentionally setting a fire and you know, I think most of us question why anybody would do that you know realizing the potential here especially in the national forest when you know that fire can spread so quickly and of course we've seen the devastation of this. I mean were not just talking about you know the land and the forest. I mean this fire has spread over 18,000 miles or I'm sorry, 18,000 acres, and now you know multiple homes have been destroyed within the city of Colorado Springs. No one would anticipate that happening especially when we look at the fire starting here in Waldo Canyon. Were surrounded by national forest. There are homes up here not directly off of this trail but there are homes in the area but no one would have had any I guess idea that this would have spread all the way to the north end of Colorado Springs down into you know densely populated neighborhoods and destroy multiple homes on streets there.
Alex Perez: And you, for you you're not only a member of law enforcement here and you want to make sure this situation is solved but you grew up here so this has got to be tough?
Paula Presley: Absolutely, I'm a native here. I've never seen anything like this. We've never had certainly we've had forest fires and some of those were related to arson, some of those we're accidental, some of those were from natural causes like lightening.
Paula Presley: Never have seen a fire like this in Colorado Springs. This is devastating.
Alex Perez: As you've been watching things and obviously you have teams working, you're watching everyone what are some of the things that have been going through your mind?
Paula Presley: First of all I think, day before yesterday when the fire moved so rapidly and crossed many ridges and started down into the housing area. I mean there was a sense even I mean I have been in law enforcement for a long time but there was a sense of panic of you know, how far is this going to go and it's a very helpless feeling. Because you know the firefighters are out there doing everything they can and they're doing a phenomenal job and we have you know, over 1000 personnel working this fire and yet you know you can't control the winds, you can't control the weather which certainly can aggravate the situation and did on that day. So, there is a sense of helplessness and panic as to when is it going to stop and how much devastation are we going to have? Certainly there is a lot of devastation with all of, all of these homes that have been destroyed and many, many of our citizens have lost everything and I mean the fires still not out. We're still actively working it and its going to be many, many days before we can say that its contained.
Alex Perez: I think people forget that it's hard to continue with the investigation when you're still trying to put the fire out right?
Paula Presley: That's it. The priority certainly is safety and getting the fire out. Then as the fire is contained then we will be able to assign personnel- investigators to determine the cause of the fire and move on from there.
Alex Perez: You know when you and other when you and other city officials this weekend saw that this fire was taking off do you think that people will imagine that it would get to this point where it is right now?
Paula Presley: No. I certainly didn't imagine it would get to this point. I mean, we knew certainly the risks associate with a fire in the national forest. Especially up in this area you can see, there's a lot of foliage. Heavily wooded, there's a lot of fuel up here. But for it to travel the distance that it traveled, again down into a very densely populated you know an urban area I don't think anybody anticipated that that was going to happen. We knew there was a risk of that but I don't think anyone anticipated that it was going to happen and happen as quickly as it did. I mean we were doing a press conference at 4:00 in the afternoon. That particular neighborhood had been partially evacuated, not completely. Certainly the folks that were working the fire determined that the entire neighborhood needed to be evacuated fairly quickly and within an hour to an hour and 15 minutes there were homes that were engulfed in flames so many of those people you know got out just in time. I mean there wasn't a lot of time to delay at that point in time. Because that fire was moving very quickly. We didn't anticipate that.
Alex Perez: That seems to be the most amazing part of this whole thing, how quickly it all moved.
Paula Presley: Yes. Yes, we you know people are watching it. The winds changed certainly, the weather was an aggravating factor that day but it was just, it seemed very, very quick that the fire could move that quickly and move into a neighborhood and essentially destroy it.
Alex Perez: Tuesday, when we had the 65 mph winds, what was going through your mind?
Paula Presley: Again, a sense of helplessness and panic. When I say panic, I mean not to the point of you know, people didn't know what to do. I mean everybody was very focused and knew what to do but again the winds were contributing to the fire and it was difficult to get it under control at that point and establish any containment and so I think many of us were setting back and looking at this and watching it and wondering just how far it would go and even now, this morning as were walking its calm. There's not even a breeze up here. This afternoon that can change as you know in minutes and that can certainly hamper the firefighting efforts and so we know that we're not anywhere, it's not anywhere near over at this point, but yeah. I think we're most fearful of the weather and not being able to get this fire contained before it spreads any further.
Alex Perez: As the undersheriff, and as somebody that calls this place home, how important is it to you that we find out what happened here?
Paula Presley: It's critical. If this was an arson, this was intentionally set, we absolutely need to um to determine that as quickly as possible and find the person and hold them accountable for that. You know, when we talk about, you know, terrorist activity you know this in many ways is a type of terrorism where somebody is trying to destroy you know, an entire city, essentially.
Alex Perez: And possibly could if firefighters aren't able to get it under control.
Paula Presley: Absolutely so, it's very critical that we-- if in fact this an arson –that we are able to investigate it, find that individual, hold them accountable and prevent them from doing the same thing somewhere else.
Alex Perez: And so the point of origin they think was near this trail?
Paula Presley: Yes. It's off the trail, yes. I can't tell you where obviously because I haven't been back there but they believe it's a short distance off of the trail back in there so yah.
Alex Perez: And so what kinds of things can they do to figure out what started it?
Paula Presley: Well, I certainly am not an arson investigator but one of the things that they will do is I mean they're going to look at the site where they believed it to start, determine you know, what evidence is there. Are there any accelerants that were used? I mean based upon the pattern of the burn they're able to tell often times if there was a certain accelerant used which would have been intentionally obviously poured on the ground to start the fire. So there's a lot of things that they can tell it's very, very complex type of investigation, very technical. You know, just general investigators aren't typically trained in that type of investigation so that's why we do have arson investigators who are specifically trained to do that but that's one of the first things that they're going to look for is what the pattern of the fire is. Of the burn and to determine whether or not accelerants were used.
Alex Perez: So you can look at that pattern and at the burn and they can get an idea of what started that?
Paula Presley: That can give them at least an idea of where to go from there and whether or not they believe that it was intentionally set, whether it was an arson or not.