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Colorado fire victims were told smoke was from controlled burn

April 04, 2012|By Dalina Castellanos
  • One home at left stands untouched while another smolders at right in this March 27 photo. Emergency officials told callers not to worry about the smoke, that it was from a controlled burn.
One home at left stands untouched while another smolders at right in this… (David Zalubowski / Associated…)

When Sam Lamar Lucas and his wife, Linda, saw smoke below their Colorado home, he called 911.

“We live up in the foothills and we just got home and looks like there's a fire right at the foot of Cathedral Spires," Lucas said in a 911 tape from March 26 that was released by the Jefferson County Sheriff's office Tuesday.

The dispatcher interrupted him.

“That is a controlled burn. The [Colorado State] Forest Service is out there on scene with that."

Lucas was bewildered. “Yeah, we got 79-mile-an-hour winds up here and they got a controlled burn?”

The dispatcher said yes.

Exasperated, Lucas responded, "Oh wonderful. Thank you."

Linda Lucas’ body was found outside their charred home that evening. Sam Lucas’ body was discovered the next day.

The Lucases were two of the three fatalities from the Lower North Fork fire, which burned about six square miles after strong winds scattered the prescribed burn.

Ann Appel had cancer and was going through chemotherapy. She, too, called 911 to report that smoke was billowing over her house. 

"Yeah, it's about 5 acres and growing, so they've got crews on the way," the dispatcher responded. Calls began coming in about 2 p.m., officials said, and Appel's was among the early ones. 

Later, one of her friends called 911 when she couldn't reach Appel by phone.

“The husband is gone, he's out of state. The wife is on chemo, she's a little sickly,” the friend said. 

“We have no idea if anybody even knows -- we just know that the fire went through their property because we were able to get a hold of neighbors, so can I give you the address so you can go and see if she's all right?”

The dispatcher said yes, but it was apparently already too late. 

Appel’s body was found over the weekend, Denver's KMGH-TV reported.

To make matters worse, the first wave of automated calls warning residents to evacuate went to the wrong phone numbers, Jefferson County Sheriff spokesman Mark Techmeyer told the Associated Press. Those calls didn't begin until 5:05 p.m. 

The first attempt was halted and a new round of calls began at 5:23 p.m., he said.

Some residents inadvertently received evacuation notices even though they were not in harm's way. Others who didn't receive the notice called 911 to report smoke and fire nearby. Appel did not receive an evacuation call, the Associated Press reported. 

The Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have called for an independent review  of the incident. Hickenlooper has suspended controlled burns across the state until the review is complete.

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