Outside the windows of Steve Foster’s pickup, Armageddon was coming. A rampage of smoke – white and streaked with black – crested the ridge to his left and bore down. It began blocking the sun, turning daylight to twilight. Glowing, tracer-bullet embers zipped by on the road behind him. He could hear the fury inside the charging plume, and it reminded him of a jet engine gaining thrust. 600 yards away. Now 500. 400.
Driving out of the neighborhood, Foster convinced himself the fire would just scoot by. My house will be OK, he thought. My friends will be OK.
But, behind him, three of his friends were dying in what would come to be called the Lower North Fork fire. His neighbors’ houses were burning. Soon, his would be too.
This was unimaginable just two hours before, when he drove into the valley below his house to investigate a small fire that the firefighter on scene insisted was manageable. Back at home, Foster told his wife not to worry.
“There was a sense of denial,” he said. “I said, ‘Honey, I was down there. There were crews arriving. It’s going to be OK.”‘
What if you were in a race for your life, only you didn’t know it?
When disaster strikes, you often hear that it happens all at once – that there is no time to know what is coming. But in the Lower North Fork fire, there was time – hours of it. What there wasn’t was foresight.
A reassembling of the timeline for March 26, the day the fire ignited – pieced together from interviews, official documents and audio records – shows a repeated official underestimation of the fire’s severity.
Emergency dispatchers often told residents calling about smoke that it was from a controlled burn started by the Colorado State Forest Service the week before, sometimes without adding that the burn had jumped containment.
Fire officials waited to order evacuations until the blaze crossed a certain point in the terrain, not realizing how quickly it would gallop across the space between that point and homes. Only 20 minutes before the fire began destroying homes, one fire chief estimated it would be two hours until structures would be threatened.
When the evacuation order finally came, it was too late for some. An entire neighborhood of families had to make a flames-at-their-backs escape.
“We weren’t novices; we understood fires,” said Andy Hoover, who was trapped in his house as the fire that killed his neighbors Sam and Linda Lucas and Ann Appel raged outside. “I guess I didn’t think about it because it was a controlled burn and it was being monitored.
“We didn’t sense the alarm that possibly we should have,” he said.
Recognizing the problems in the fire response, Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed consolidating fire and emergency management functions in a single state department to streamline the chain of command and quicken decision making. Jefferson County authorities also have announced changes to evacuation procedures to give residents earlier warning when danger is looming.
“We know that not every fire will give us that opportunity,” Jefferson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said. “There was that opportunity in the Lower North Fork fire.”
A community on alert
Whoever named the neighborhood Pleasant Park knew what he was talking about. Sitting atop a ridgeline at about 8,000 feet, it looks down across a grand sweep of valleys and hills. Homes are spaced leisurely along the ridge, their big windows soaking in the views.
The focal point of the community along Kuehster Road – pronounced “Custer” by locals _ was a red, single-room schoolhouse built in 1920. Foster and his neighbors worked to restore the schoolhouse, making it into a gathering spot for the Sampson Community Club.
One Fourth of July, Foster said, neighbors met outside the school for a cookout. But then the clouds grew dark and the winds blew up. When rain began to fall, the neighbors scampered into Foster’s house a few yards away. And the party continued.
“I’m out there firing up my big grill, getting pelted by hail and cooking up 40 to 50 hamburgers and just having a great time,” Foster remembers.
As soon as residents spotted smoke on March 26, at the site of a state-set controlled burn conducted days before, they began calling each other to share what they knew. Then they called 911.
Sam Lucas, who lived next to Hoover, was one of the first, at about 2:20 p.m.
“The Forest Service is out there,” the dispatcher said.
Fifteen minutes later, Ann Appel called.
“They’ve got crews on the way,” the dispatcher answered.
At another point, a dispatcher told a resident that the fire is “a controlled burn that slightly got out of control.”
It was 5 acres then, according to an investigative report. Firefighters had no containment, and the winds had begun to gust. Within an hour, winds were blowing at a steady 20 mph.
Evacuations put on hold
Once on scene, dispatch records and official reports show that firefighters ordered an increasing amount of resources to combat the growing blaze. The wind blew so hard that firefighters could barely keep their helmets on, according to statements made to a Jefferson County sheriff’s investigator. Golf-ball-size embers flew around them.
About 3:30 p.m., the fire chiefs on scene decided to wait to order evacuations until the flames crossed a natural drainage point in the valley below Kuehster Road. The fire was about 10 to 15 acres in size but growing quickly.
It took another hour for the fire to cross that drainage, right around the time Eddie Schneider pulled into his driveway on the ridge above after hurrying home when he saw smoke during a round of golf.
Schneider had called 911 the week before after seeing smoke from the controlled burn. This time, he called 911 again and said he was told no evacuations were in place.
“Down there,” Schneider said, “they knew they had a problem. But they weren’t going to tell anybody because then they were in trouble.”
Meanwhile, Inter-Canyon firefighter Dave Brutout was driving up and down Kuehster Road urging residents to leave, even though an official order was still several minutes away. The winds were roaring atop the ridge, a sustained 60 mph, Brutout told investigators, according to a report. He couldn’t hold his helmet on his head.
Brutout said he spoke with Sam Lucas, who said he was packed up but wanted to turn on his home’s fire-suppression system before leaving. Brutout tried to talk to Appel. But there was a chain across her driveway, and he moved on. By the time the firefighter reached Schneider’s house _ Schneider estimated it to be about 5 p.m. – the moment to evacuate safely had already passed, unbeknown to everyone.
Down below, the first formal request for evacuations came at 4:41 p.m., according to an investigative report. The emergency notification system, which a glitch prevented from going to all residents in the evacuation zone, came just after 5 p.m. At 5:12, North Fork Fire Chief Curt Rogers estimated the blaze would reach the homes above within two hours, according to the report.
It reached Andy Hoover’s back door in 13 minutes.
Hoover was racing around in his home, pulling furniture away from windows, when the light outside went black. Then, his windows glowed orange. Heat filled the home. Flames were lapping at his house, and there was no place for him to go.
“I could just feel radiated heat,” Hoover said. “It was just like in front of an open oven.”
“I sort of understood that I might not make it out of this mess.”
Down the road, Eddie Schneider was having the same thought.
He and his wife had left their house about 5:15 p.m. – less than 15 minutes after receiving the evacuation call – but went back to get one last thing. Leaving again, the fire closed around them.
Smoke enveloped their vehicle. The only way Schneider could see where he was going was to look down at the ditch beside the road and make sure not to drive into it. Embers flew by. Trees lit up like torches beside the road.
His neighbors – Kim Olson and Doug Gulick, who videotaped their escape – were just in front of him to start. Foster was a couple minutes up ahead.
“You had to leave with the clothes on your back, and that was it,” Schneider said.
Schneider and his wife drove anxiously until they burst out of the plume and into the sunlight.
Meanwhile, Hoover was desperately fighting to save his house. The front of flames outside the home had passed, but a residual fire burned on his deck. The inner panes of windows were broken.
He called his wife, Jeanie.
“I don’t know what the hell’s going on,” he said, “but there’s sparks everywhere; there are flames; it’s hot.”
He tried to douse the deck fire, but it was too hot outside. The power was out. He went down to the garage, climbed into his pickup and smashed straight through the garage door.
Outside, he drove until he found a safe spot in an open area and watched as his house burned.
“I think I’m going to hang out here until I know a better idea,” he told a dispatcher in a 911 call. “It seems like a dumb idea to move.”
A long way from closure
There are multiple ongoing investigations into the causes of the Lower North Fork fire and the response to it.
Exactly when the fire reached Ann Appel’s and the Lucases’ homes has not been determined, nor have their causes of death. Throughout the day, neighbors had been in regular contact with the three. Appel and the Lucases had said as late as 5 p.m. that they were on the verge of evacuating.
That they didn’t survive the panicked escape that their neighbors did has only stirred the community’s anger over the fire. Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin’s admission that evacuations should have come at least an hour earlier hasn’t soothed, either.
Instead, residents say they hope officials will be held accountable, that amends will be made. Only that – and time – can piece the community back together.
“I still have a nice view, for 70 miles around,” said Schneider, whose house was the only on his street to survive. “But when I look down, I’m living in a little piece of hell. It’s black. And that will take a while.”
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