Wildfire Within 3 Miles Of Homes Before Evacuations

North Fork Fire Chief Never Received Prescribed Burn Plan From State Forest Service

The Lower North Fork fire started less than three miles from the nearest home, but at the base of a very steep ridge, according to North Fork Fire Chief Curt Rogers.

The Colorado State Forest Service had conducted a prescribed burn on March 22, but its embers reignited and escaped the burn area four days later.

Rogers was one of the first firefighters to arrive at the fire after the State Forest Service called for extra help. He spoke exclusively with 7NEWS about the response and his knowledge of the prescribed burn in his fire district.

"We were advised over the phone that they were going to be burning on (Thursday)," said Rogers.

"That's your only notification?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"Yes," said Rogers.

"What about the prescribed burn plan?" asked Zelinger.

"I haven't -- I didn't get a copy of the prescribed burn plan," said Rogers.

"What type of notice have you received from the (State) Forest Service about the previous prescribed burns?" asked Zelinger.

"We didn’t receive any notice -- other than phone notification -- that they were burning, about the prescribed burn, but we never received any burn plans," said Rogers.

"Should you have?" asked Zelinger.

"It would probably be useful information if our agency is going to be involved in the response to that incident," said Rogers.

"Do you know what's in the prescribed burn plan, at least for this fire?" asked Zelinger.

"I haven't seen the prescribed burn plan for this fire," said Rogers.

"To this moment, you still haven't seen it," asked Zelinger.

"No, I have not seen it," said Rogers.

The Elk Creek Fire Department also responded with North Fork. Earlier this month, Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin confirmed that he also has never seen the Lower North Fork prescribed burn plan.

"If we were involved in the response as a resource to respond to that, it would have been useful information to us," said Rogers.

"Do you expect to get them from here on out?" asked Zelinger.

"I would suspect when the Governor's review committee goes through all of these steps that there will be recommendations that that kind of information will be provided," said Rogers.

Governor John Hickenlooper appointed an independent team to investigate the fire. The details of the report may be complete by Monday.

"We had no input into the planning of the burn at all," said Rogers.

"Would you have recommended it?" asked Zelinger.

"I hope that the Governor's review committee comes out with good guidelines for what will happen with prescribed fire in the future," said Rogers.

Trigger Point Which Caused Evacuations About 2 Miles From Homes

Rogers called for mandatory evacuations when he radioed Jefferson County dispatch at 4:57 p.m.

He called for the evacuations after the fire moved passed a designated point on a map, known as a trigger point.

"The first drainage that you encounter from that fire is where the trigger point was established," said Rogers.

When the fire escaped the prescribed burn area, Rogers chose the drainage as the last point before evacuations would be made. After the drainage, the terrain slopes up a steep ridge toward homes at the top of the ridge.

"Was there ever a realistic opportunity to put this fire out?" asked Zelinger.

"There was an attempt to contain it at the bottom of the drainage. It was going to be very difficult to accomplish that day given the weather conditions," Rogers said.

Rogers told 7NEWS the base of the ridge is about two to 2.5 miles from the nearest home.

"When it crossed out of that slope, it rapidly transitioned into a running crown fire, so the rate of spread of the fire picked up immensely once it crossed that drainage at the bottom of the hill," said Rogers.

A crown fire is when the flames move across the tops of the trees instead of from the ground up.

"Was the trigger point too close to the homes?" asked Zelinger.

"I think all of our agencies will be reviewing if that was an adequate trigger point," said Rogers.

He said evacuations aren't taken lightly, but also aren't decided on a whim.

"We want to give them as much opportunity as we can, we also don't want to create a panic out there," said Rogers. "We have to gather intelligence about the fire, determine where it's going to spread to."

Sam and Linda Lucas died at their home. An Inter-Canyon firefighter told Lucas twice face-to-face to evacuate at about 4:20 p.m.

The firefighter did not warn Ann Appel, who also died in the fire. Citing wildfire safety protocol, the Inter-Canyon fire agency said the firefighter did not enter Appel's property after seeing a chain across the driveway and trees that created a canopy.

Appel's family previously provided 7NEWS a statement in response, saying:

    The security chain had been used at the suggestion of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department after a burglary years earlier. They were told that a small chain half-way along the drive deters would-be thieves who will usually move to an easier target. Security gates or chains are common in this part of Jefferson County where properties are larger. The family understood that fire departments were equipped to open these security devises in the event of an emergency.

"Was the fire burning farther ahead than anyone knew?" asked Zelinger.

"If you're asking me, 'Had the fire spotted or progressed beyond the point of the origin of the fire?' it's difficult intelligence to get, Rogers said. "Again, you have to keep in mind that there's a large smoke column developing on this fire that can be obscuring the view in front of this fire, at the head of the fire."

"To the best of our knowledge, we didn't see a new fire start ahead of us, across that trigger point," Rogers said. "But there is, again, a large smoke column developed and it's hard to evaluate if that's progressed."

"At what point was the fire lost?" asked Zelinger.

"Again, as it transitioned from a surface fire to a rapidly running crown fire, that's the point our tactics are no longer going to be effective on the fire," Rogers said.

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