Firefighters in Conifer thought they had more time

Authorities on Tuesday positively identified Ann Appel’s remains, who is suspected of dying in her burned-out home after a devastating wildfire that also killed two other people. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of the Appel Family/Associated Press

Authorities on Tuesday positively identified Ann Appel’s remains, who is suspected of dying in her burned-out home after a devastating wildfire that also killed two other people.

DENVER – Firefighters battling a wildfire in the foothills near Denver misjudged how long the fire would take to reach nearby homes by about an hour, according to audio of radio traffic released Wednesday.

Authorities apparently were unaware of either the speed of the March 26 wildfire that’s blamed for three deaths, or the proximity of houses once the fire spread beyond a drainage area that triggered an official call for evacuations.

A firefighter on the radio estimated it would take about two hours before the blaze hit homes. Authorities pressed for a time frame because they also were responding to another wildfire at the time.

He estimated there were about 500 houses in the path of the fire, which had just jumped a drainage, and that triggered the call for evacuations at 4:40 p.m.

“My conservative estimate, about two hours until we hit structures,” the firefighter said through the radio.

According to the radio recordings, the fire was estimated to be about 100 acres after it crossed the drainage, had “lined up with the wind” and was spreading in the trees that dot the landscape near Conifer.

Volunteer firefighters called in to help battle the fire have said they were working with maps that were 18 years old. Firefighters also had trouble judging how big the fire was because a fire lookout had to flee his post as the fire raced toward him, according to the recordings.

Dispatch records show the first home burned about an hour after the firefighter at the scene asked for evacuations, triggering two rounds of automated telephone warnings.

The recordings also paint a chaotic scene where crews responding to the fire were unable to communicate with the Colorado State Forest Service crew battling the prescribed burn that had jumped containment lines March 26. At one point commanders on the scene didn’t know what decisions had been made about more firefighters.

“Give me a few minutes here. I’m going to put these two (incident commanders) together, in my car and get some decisions made on this,” one firefighter said. “We’re going to put everybody in the same vehicle so we can get this hashed out.”

A dispatcher told firefighters: “I have a task force available, but I need to order them. ... Nobody said to order them.”

To which came the reply: “Order them.”

Firefighters arriving at the scene expressed concern about the drainage, a so-called “trigger point” for evacuations, where crews had hoped to stop the blaze from advancing into mountain subdivisions.

“The trigger point is pretty thin. I’m sure we’ll have some evacuation orders pretty quick,” a firefighter said upon arriving at about 2:40 p.m.

Another firefighter radioed about the drainage:

“I don’t think we’re going to hold it here.”

Even before evacuations were ordered, one volunteer firefighter drove from house to house in a neighborhood warning people to leave starting at about 4 p.m. All three people who died lived there.

The Inter Canyon firefighter never reached one of the three victims, Ann Appel, because there was a security chain on her driveway, firefighters said. He did tell Sam and Linda Lucas to leave, but their bodies were later found at their burned home.

Jefferson County sent a first wave of evacuation notices by automated phone calls shortly after 5 p.m., but it went to the wrong list of numbers that had too many people. That round was halted, and then a second, corrected wave of automated calls began at about 5:23 p.m.

Three hours after the corrected wave of automated calls were made, dispatcher asked firefighters to check on Appel’s house.

“Her husband who’s out of town heard the news, and he’s been unable to reach her,” the dispatcher said.

A firefighter checking on the house reported: “The structure there has burned to the ground.”

Four sheriff’s deputies patrolled the area after 5 p.m. to help evacuate residents. The recordings capture what happened when one of them became trapped in his vehicle as smoke swirled around him before he was rescued.

“Zero visibility. My vehicle is out of commission, and I got fire all around. I’m gonna stay put in the vehicle,” the trapped deputy radios, sounding out of breath.

Another deputy reports being able to see him.

“I gotcha. I gotcha. I’m coming. I’m bailing out of this car, and I’m coming,” he says before a third deputy also answers the call for help.