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Colorado governor suspends prescribed burns in response to deadly wildfire

Published March 28, 2012 11:35 am

Wildfire • About 400 firefighters from several states involved in battle.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Conifer, Colo. • Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday suspended the use of state prescribed burns like the one that may have caused a deadly wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes near Denver.

The Colorado State Forest Service says the 6-square-mile fire started after a controlled burn last week that was meant to reduce vegetation. Instead, high wind gusts Monday blew embers across a containment line and into unburned forest, sparking the blaze.

"This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry," Deputy State Forester Joe Duda said in a written statement.

Hickenlooper said the ban on prescribed fires on state lands, including state parks, would be in effect until a review of the wildfire is complete.

The ban doesn't affect land controlled by the federal government — which accounts for more than one-third of Colorado. However, Hickenlooper urged counties and federal agencies to also consider suspending such burns for now.

Meanwhile, about 400 firefighters from several states including Utah were focusing on building containment lines around the wildfire. Until now, the fire's erratic pattern has forced firefighters to focus on protecting homes, not stopping the burn. The fire was 15 percent contained Wednesday afternoon, Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said.

Air tankers dropped retardant and two National Guard helicopters dropped water to assist firefighters on the ground. Smoke from the fire created haze around Denver, obscuring views of the Rocky Mountains.

As crews dug lines around the fire's perimeter, a search team was using dogs to look for a woman missing in the fire zone. Her home was among 27 destroyed or damaged in the blaze.

The bodies of Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and Linda M. Lucas, 76, were found earlier this week at their destroyed home. Their cause of death was pending.

Neighbor Eddie Schneider said he's not sure the couple ever received an automated phone call telling them to leave. Schneider left his home after a firefighter knocked on his door.

Hickenlooper said he doesn't blame some of the 900 evacuated homeowners in the mountains southwest of Denver for being angry.

"Their houses have been destroyed. Their lives have been changed forever. It's not their fault," he told KOA radio.

Later Wednesday, some local sheriff's deputies started taking owners of destroyed homes into the burn area to see what was left. On a tour for reporters, thin white smoke rose from valleys. Charred appliances were all that remained of some homes.

A Forest Service manager who helps plan for prescribed burns, Jane Lopez, said the state usually performs them only in spring and fall. Prescribed burns are planned as far as three years in advance, she said, but they don't go forward unless weather conditions meet requirements. She said everything was done properly.

"You don't burn unless all the parameters are met," Lopez said. She didn't comment on the governor's planned burn order but said, "We're at the end of the prescribed burn season anyway."

Conifer resident Don Heiden, who was displaced by the fire, said he wasn't ready to blame the government.

"Accidents happen. If there was negligence, they'll figure it out," said Heiden, who was watching televised aerial shots to see if his home was still standing. "To me, it's more of an act of God."

For years, fire agencies have used controlled burns to pre-empt devastating wildfires by consuming fuel. Officials credited such an operation with helping save hundreds of homes during a 2002 Colorado wildfire that did destroy 133 homes.

A few controlled burns have escaped firefighters' control.

One of the worst cases was in New Mexico in 2000. A prescribed burn set by the National Park Service in Bandelier National Monument, west of Los Alamos, blew out of control, and all of Los Alamos was evacuated. More than 400 families lost their homes and more than 115 Los Alamos National Laboratory buildings were destroyed or damaged. The federal government paid $455 million in compensation.

The Park Service resumed prescribed burns a year later with new rules, including having outside experts check burn plans.

The fire threat in much of Colorado has grown during an unusually dry and warm March. Several counties, including Jefferson, have implemented fire restrictions affecting campfires, fireworks and smoking in fire-prone areas.