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Authorities defend their efforts to warn Conifer residents of fire

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

A chain and construction equipment on Tuesday block the driveway leading to the home where resident Ann Appel lived. She was one of three people believed to have died when a wildfire burned through the area near Conifer last month. Authorities are defending their attempts to warn residents about the Colorado wildfire.

Associated Press

DENVER – Firefighters are defending their attempts to warn residents about a fast-moving Colorado wildfire in response to questions raised by the family of one of three people killed by the blaze.

About an hour before the first wave of automated evacuated warning calls March 26, a volunteer firefighter rushed from house to house telling residents to leave. He was unable to reach Ann Appel because of a chain across her driveway, and her family is questioning why he didn’t leave his vehicle and walk past the chain to warn her.

Inter-Canyon Fire/Rescue chief Dave MacBean told KMGH-TV that it wasn’t safe because there were trees on both sides of the narrow driveway, which can help a fire spread. Fire spokesman Dan Hatlestad wouldn’t directly address the family’s question on Tuesday, but the department has said the house wasn’t visible from the end of the driveway.

An aerial map shows the home was about 400 feet from the end of the road, down a curved driveway. Steep, gravel roads and driveways are common in the rugged area, which is dotted with pine trees.

“Was three minutes too much to warn a resident who had reported the smoke two hours earlier that it was now time to evacuate?” the family said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press Monday by Appel’s sister-in-law, Susan Appel Sorenson.

The Jefferson County coroner’s office Tuesday confirmed remains found in the house were Appel’s. She was reported missing on the day of the fire, and the remains were found March 31. The coroner is awaiting the results of lab tests before determining her cause of death.

Hatlestad, a firefighter and paramedic, said firefighters consider vegetation, driveway widths and steep slopes when deciding how to approach a home in danger. He said they must also consider whether they can get themselves and their vehicles out safely if they approach a home all while rushing to notify as many people as possible.

It wasn’t immediately clear what time the firefighter encountered Appel’s driveway, but other firefighters returned there at about 8 p.m. and found the house destroyed and nearby trees on fire, Hatlestad said. Firefighters made a “rapid search” of the area and then responded to other calls, he said.

Appel’s family said the chain across the driveway had been put in place at the suggestion of the sheriff’s department after a burglary years earlier, and that they were assured fire departments could open it in an emergency. Hatlestad said firefighters usually don’t carry keys for chains. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley declined to comment.

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