April 4, 2012 in Nation/World

911 callers told not to worry about blaze

Dispatchers awaited report on wildfire
Rema Rahman Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

One home stands untouched at left while another home at right smolders after burning in the foothills community of Conifer, Colo., on March 27.
(Full-size photo)

DENVER – Emergency officials told confused residents not to worry after they reported a fire on the outskirts of Denver, including at least two residents who later were found dead in their burning home, 911 calls released by officials Tuesday showed.

Residents began calling to express concern about the fire and high winds around 2 p.m., and at first dispatchers assured them the heavy smoke and flames were part of a controlled burn that wasn’t a threat. Later they acknowledged that there was some trouble with a prescribed burn but told callers that firefighters were at the scene.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said sheriff’s officials were aware the controlled burn had broken its perimeter that afternoon, but she said the agency didn’t know the fire had gotten out of control until a local fire department sent a notification at 5 p.m. She said that’s when a firefighter first made a suggestion for evacuations.

“We have to listen to what groups in the field are telling us,” Kelley said of why evacuations weren’t called earlier. “If they’re saying there’s a controlled burn and the state forest service is on the scene, we don’t just create evacuations for a fire that has gone outside the perimeter.”

The 911 calls raised further questions about emergency officials’ response to last week’s fast-growing fire, which authorities believe killed three people, damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes and burned six square miles in the mountains southwest of Denver.

Resident Sam Lucas, 77, who died along with his 76-year-old wife, Linda, was among the first to call around 2 p.m. on March 26 after returning home. The dispatcher, having already answered a handful of calls about the fire, cut Lucas off to tell him it was a controlled burn and that the forest service was on scene.

“We got 79-mile-an-hour winds out there and they got a controlled burn?” Lucas said on the 911 call, one of 130 calls over a total of 10 hours released Tuesday.

A friend concerned about the third person who apparently died in the fire also called to ask authorities to check on Ann Appel because she was getting chemotherapy and her husband was out of state. That call seems to have come after it was too late to help her.

The caller said Appel – who didn’t get an evacuation notice – wasn’t answering her phone. Meanwhile, authorities say evacuation orders were sent in error to homes that weren’t in the fire’s path.

“She had her stuff to leave. The car had a flat tire,” the caller said.

The dispatcher took Appel’s number and address and said, “We’ll get someone out there to make sure she got out, OK?”

Searchers found human remains in Appel’s burned-out home on Saturday.

“The information at the time was we had a controlled burn, and fire agencies were on scene,” said Jefferson County sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer. “In law enforcement, you want to minimize radio traffic. There would be no reason to air out something that’s already common knowledge.”

He said the dispatchers weren’t giving interviews about what happened.

The fire appears to have been sparked by a controlled burn set four days earlier by the Colorado State Forest Service, which says embers escaped from the burn sometime on the afternoon of March 26. A review of what happened has been ordered by the governor.

The first wave of automated calls ordering residents to evacuate was sent at 5:05 p.m. but they went to the wrong list of phone numbers, Techmeyer said.

“That was a user error on our end,” he said.

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