DENVER — One resident who was killed in a Colorado wildfire had been warned in person by a firefighter to evacuate, a fire department spokesman said Monday.
A volunteer firefighter started going door-to-door telling people to leave about an hour before an automated phone system began sending evacuation alerts, said Dan Hatlestad, a spokesman for the volunteer's department, Inter-Canyon Fire/Rescue.
The driveways of three other homes the firefighter tried to alert were blocked, including the residence of a woman who is missing and feared dead in the fire, Hatlestad said.
The March 26 wildfire scorched 6 square miles and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes in the mountains southwest of Denver. Authorities believe three people died.
The timing of the evacuation notices has raised questions about how authorities and residents responded, particularly in the first hours of the fire. 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 they realized a wildfire was racing through the heavily timbered area, dispatchers advised callers to leave. Authorities said an ember from the prescribed burn apparently caused the wildfire.
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. A second, corrected wave of automated calls began at about 5:23 p.m.
In a written release and an interview, Hatlestad said the volunteer firefighter began going door-to-door at about 4 p.m., approaching homes in the fire's path with his vehicle's lights and siren on. The firefighter's name wasn't released.
Between 4:20 and 4:30 p.m., the firefighter spoke to Sam Lucas, who was later found dead at his home along with his wife, Linda, Hatlestad said.
Lucas was startled by the firefighter's approach, Hatlestad said. Lucas was loading things into a vehicle, 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 Lucas' exact words, Hatlestad said.
"Right now you need to get out of here," the firefighter recalled telling Lucas.
Audio recordings and documents released by Jefferson County show Lucas had 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.
After speaking with Lucas, the firefighter tried to approach three other homes but found their driveways blocked by a gate, a trailer or chains, Hatlestad said. One was the home of Ann Appel, who is believed to have died in the fire.
There was smoke but no fire around the blocked-off driveways at the time, Hatlestad said, and the firefighter, following standard safety procedures, didn't attempt to enter the closed-off properties but moved on to alert other residents.
Appel had called 911 to report smoke about 15 minutes after Sam Lucas and was told crews were on the way.
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.
Hatlestad said a number of residents declined to evacuate when warned by firefighters, but he did not know how many. He said firefighters took their names and addresses.
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.