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FILE - In this March 27, 2012 photo, one home stands untouched at left while another home at right smolders after burning in the Lower North Fork Wildfire in the foothills community of Conifer, Colo., southwest of 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. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
911 calls show residents misled over Colorado wildfire
Delayed evacuation » Questions arise about emergency officials’ response to the fast-growing fire, which authorities believe killed three people.
First Published Apr 04 2012 11:22 am • Last Updated Apr 04 2012 11:31 am

DENVER • Sam Lucas was among the first to begin calling 911 about a wildfire burning near his home on the outskirts of Denver.

But 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 the scene.

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"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 that were released Tuesday.

When the dispatcher says yes, he replies: "Oh wonderful. Thank you."

He and his wife were later found dead at their burned-out home.

The 911 calls from March 26 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 6 square miles in the mountains southwest of Denver.

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 weren’t a threat. Later they acknowledged that there was some trouble with a prescribed burn but told callers that firefighters were at the scene.

According to authorities’ log released Wednesday, the fire first crossed the burn’s containment lines built at 1:40 p.m. Firefighters requested evacuations three hours later when it crossed a drainage.

Jefferson County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said it learned the fire had gotten out of control at 5 p.m., prompting it to start evacuations. 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."

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Residents in the mountains are particularly sensitive to smoke in the air, and it wasn’t unusual for dispatchers to receive calls about seeing smoke from the controlled burn, Kelley said. The dispatchers’ messages to callers changed as the situation changed, she said.

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.

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. However, that call seems to have come after it was too late to help her.

"She’s a little sickly. We have no idea if anybody even knows she’s there," the caller said. "We know the fire went through her property because we were able to get ahold of the neighbor."

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. A review has been ordered by the governor.

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