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 on 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.
Appel's family also questioned why she received no call back telling her to leave following her initial 911 call to report smoke over her house. Appel made the 911 call more than two hours before the automated notifications were sent.
She didn't receive one of those messages because her address was mistakenly listed as being in Morrison, along with other residents.
Kelley said no one was called manually.
"We utilized the reverse 911 system, which we expected to work," Kelley said. She noted she's been told problems uncovered with the automated warning system after the fire have now been fixed.
Kelley said people also have to take it upon themselves to realize when they are in a dangerous situation.
"When you see smoke, smell smoke and see flames that is causing you concern, if you feel like you or your loved ones are in danger, get out," she said.
In a statement, Inter-Canyon said the firefighter began to warn residents to leave around 4 p.m. with his vehicle lights and siren on.
One of the people he told to leave was Sam Lucas, who was later found dead along with his wife, at their burned-out home. Lucas was loading things into a vehicle, Hatlestad said, apparently in anticipation of an evacuation.
When the firefighter told Lucas "It's time to go," Lucas said something about his home's fire suppression system, although the firefighter didn't remember his exact words, Hatlestad said.
"Right now you need to get out of here," the firefighter recalled telling Lucas.
Jefferson County documents show Lucas called 911 shortly after 2 p.m. – roughly two hours before his conversation with the firefighter – to report smoke and was told it was a prescribed burn.
Lucas was 77, and his wife, Linda, was 76. The coroner also is awaiting lab tests before announcing their cause of death.
Hatlestad said some people also ignored firefighters' attempts to keep them out of the area after the fire broke out, driving around a fire truck that had maneuvered in the road as a roadblock.
He did not know how many people drove around the roadblock but said the practice continued until a Colorado State Patrol trooper arrived.
Four sheriff's deputies patrolled the area after 5 p.m. to help evacuate residents, Kelley said. One of those deputies became trapped in his vehicle as smoke swirled around him. His fellow deputies, who were nearby, were able to rescue him.
A firefighter from a different district notified the sheriff's office to begin evacuating the area at 4:56 p.m., Kelley said.
The March 26 wildfire scorched 6 square miles and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes in the mountains southwest of Denver.
Initially, authorities were mostly scrutinized for how they handled 911 calls from residents reporting the fire and for failures in getting automated telephone evacuation warnings to the right people. Inter-Canyon didn't release details about the in-person attempts to warn residents until Monday, after briefing the Appel and Lucas families and getting approval from fire investigators.
Worried residents who called 911 to report smoke were initially told by dispatchers that it came from a prescribed burn that was conducted four days earlier. Later, when the dispatchers realized a wildfire was racing through the heavily timbered area, they told callers to leave.
Jefferson County authorities began sending evacuation notices by automated phone calls shortly after 5 p.m., but the first wave 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.