Colorado Death After Emergency Wildfire Calls Questioned

By Rema Rahman | April 5, 2012

Sam Lucas was among the first to call about a wildfire burning near his Colorado home. But the busy emergency dispatcher cut him off, saying it was a controlled burn and the forest service was on the scene.

“We got 79-mile-an-hour (127-kilometer-an-hour) winds out there and they got a controlled burn?” Lucas said on the call, one of 130 calls released Tuesday.

Within an hour, he and his wife were dead.

The emergency calls from March 26 raised further questions about emergency officials’ response to last week’s fast-growing fire, which authorities believe killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes in the mountains southwest of Denver.

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. The governor has ordered a review of what happened.

When residents began calling to express concern, dispatchers at first assured them the heavy smoke and flames weren’t a threat. Later they acknowledged that there was some trouble 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 a few hours after calls started coming in.

“We have to listen to what groups in the field are telling us,” Kelley said of why evacuations weren’t called earlier.

A neighbor has said Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda, 76, were packed and ready to go if they got orders to evacuate. Authorities say they did eventually get one, but it’s not clear when.

Jefferson County sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer said the dispatchers weren’t giving interviews about what happened.

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.

“It was way too large geographically,” he said, adding that he had no other details. “That was a user error on our end.”

A new round of calls was started at 5:23 p.m., he said.

The phone recordings show that the initial round of notifications caused even more confusion. Dispatchers appear to become increasingly overwhelmed.

Some did urge people to err on the side of caution and evacuate if they felt they were in danger.

Intermountain Rural Electric Association, which provides power to the area, cut off the electricity at about 8 p.m., spokesman Mike Kopp said.

That could have rendered some phones inoperable, but residents with cellphones still could get the evacuation order, Techmeyer said.

About Rema Rahman

Associated Press

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