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Remaining evacuees return to homes as weather deals final blow to deadly Lower North Fork Fire

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IREA working to restore power

By Gabrielle Porter

With containment of the deadly Lower North Fork Fire at 100 percent and wetter weather answering the prayers of residents and firefighters, the remaining evacuated residents were headed back to their homes — a week after the wildfire brought fear and devastation to a massive area south of Conifer. 

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Kuehster Road, where the most damage was done, was open to residents only on Monday, Jeffco sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said. All pre-evacuation notices also were lifted April 2.

The fire, which re-ignited March 26 from a controlled burn 6 miles south of Conifer, burned 4,140 acres and had a perimeter of 8.5 miles. Three people died. Some 900 homes were evacuated early last week, and 28 structures were destroyed.

Kelley said the morning drizzle forecast for Monday would help get the blaze completely under control, and with snow expected later Monday and Tuesday, she said she hoped some firefighters soon could return home.

 

Blaze leaves three dead

The bodies of Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda M. Lucas, 76, were found in their home in the area of the blaze, according to Jefferson County Coroner John Graham. One body was found inside the house, the other outside. Jefferson County is investigating both deaths. Their memorial service was held in Littleton on March 30.

Possible human remains of a third fire victim were found Saturday at the home of the woman reported missing last week. The remains were found in the home of Ann Appel as officials reported that the fire was more than 90 percent contained. Forensic tests are being done on the possible remains, and results will be available in several days. The search for Appel ended at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

 

Insurance claims and power

The fire’s Incident Management Team has met with insurance agencies and utility companies, which were entering the containment area to determine what will be needed to restore services.

Meanwhile, crews from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association had restored power to almost all the 267 homes that went dark during the fire. A power line serving more than 50 homes sustained extensive damage and must be rebuilt, IREA said.

The Sheriff’s Office has met with all of the 28 families whose houses were destroyed, Incident Management Team spokesman Dan Hatlestad said.

 

Reverse-911 failure probed

The Sheriff’s Office is also continuing to investigate the cause of a failure in the reverse-911 calling system that resulted in some residents not being notified about evacuations, sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer said.

Though about 12 percent of residents evacuated reported not receiving such calls, that estimate resulted partially from phone complications not directly related to the reverse-911 system, he said.

“If they’re on the phone, they’re not going to get it,”Techmeyer said of calls that did not go through because a phone line was busy. “If you pick up the phone, there’s an eight- or nine-second delay before you hear the message,”he added, referring to residents he said may have answered the phone and hung up quickly.

However, the Sheriff’s Office conceded that a software problem is likely responsible for some calls never being placed to registered residents.

“We know that happened through our research,”Techmeyer said. “Those people were registered, and they should have gotten the call. …We want to get to the bottom of this as much as our citizens do.”

 

The fires start: ‘I was worried right away

The fire started when a prescribed burn conducted in the area March 22 by the Colorado State Forest Service re-ignited a few days later, said Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin.

State Forest Service firefighting teams were on the scene when the blaze flared up March 26 at the Denver Water Board property south of Reynolds Open Space Park on Foxton Road. They called for backup from Elk Creek and Inter-Canyon fire crews.

It was a red-flag day, with high temperatures and stiff winds. When McLaughlin got the call, he was with a crew at Aspen Park putting out a quarter-acre grass fire caused by a power line downed by the gusts. It took him about 30 minutes to reach the wildfire scene.

“By the time I got there, the fire was already about 5 acres,”he said. “It was growing fast. The wind was really howling down in that canyon.”

McLaughlin said he knew immediately that the fire might escape.

“I was worried right away,”he said. “With that kind of wind, even if we were able to contain the edge of the fire, we would have such a high likelihood of embers blowing out from the stumps …We could contain it, and it would probably just escape again.”

 

Fighting the blaze

McLaughlin’s concerns proved correct over the next several days. The fire leaped from 5 acres to 4,100 acres as wind gusts kept firefighters at a distance from the front lines all day and night March 26, and kept pushing them back throughout the week. Spot fires jumped at crews as the wind threw embers as far as a half-mile from the blaze, keeping firefighters on the defense for most of the week.

Local firefighting crews sent out calls for help on March 26, and by Thursday about 500 firefighters from Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California and South Dakota had arrived. Two heavy tankers and a plane dropped retardant on the area around the fire March 28, while four helicopters dumped water directly on the flames. A federal Type I team from Great Basin, Mont., arrived the evening of March 27 and took charge.

The tankers, which had been dropping more than 2,000 gallons of retardant on each pass, were redeployed to a fire in South Dakota on Thursday. Air support continued through four helicopters that picked up about 500 gallons of water at a time.

Firefighters were able to start establishing a perimeter around the blaze March 29.

 

A scary few minutes

While the fire spread March 26, authorities worked to get residents evacuated. A Jeffco sheriff’s deputy drove off a road about 6 p.m. near the Kuehster Road neighborhood while helping with the evacuations. His car became stuck, and he wasn’t able to get out until help arrived.
“He couldn’t see, couldn’t move, couldn’t drive,”Kelley said late on March 26. “He’s fine, but it was a scary few minutes.”

 

Concerns and frustrations about the fires beginning

Some residents said that even though they know they live in an area with high fire risk, it’s frustrating when a fire is man-made.
Ron Husak lives on Riley Peak Pass, a couple of miles as the crow flies from where the fire was burning the morning of March 27. People in his neighborhood were some of the first to report the fire March 26, and the smoke was clearly visible from his yard.
Husak said he knows the risk he takes living in the mountains.
“Anything can happen anywhere,”he said. “It’s just kind of irritating when you see man-made fire. …It’s very disappointing.”

While Kelley said there was no reason to believe the fire started another way than because of the prescribed burn, Jefferson County will be conducting an investigation. Kelley said it was “absolutely unfortunate if that is the cause.”On March 26, conditions were described as extremely dry; winds were ferocious, with one gust reported at 65 mph.
Although March was drier than usual, last year’s Indian Gulch Fire started on March 20.

“We’re not unprepared,”Kelley said. “We’re aware of the conditions.”

But the Lower North Fork Fire was still an early start to the season, she said. “I think this does worry a lot of people in the region.”

Shadow Mountain resident Steve Carter said that while he was not affected directly by the fire, he has friends who were. He would like Jeffco’s investigation to look into criminal charges against the Colorado State Forest Service.

“I’m beyond frustration at this point,”said Carter, who is retired from his law enforcement career in Denver. “I want somebody prosecuted, and I want a permanent ban on prescribed burns. …

“This is not civil negligence; this is criminal negligence.”