Calls Show Residents Panicked Over Lower North Fork Fire
GALLERIES: COLORADO'S WORST WILDFIRES
DENVER (AP) – A woman believed killed in last week’s devastating Colorado wildfire called 911 soon after the fire broke out, and authorities say her call, along with that of a couple later found dead at their burned home, were among the early ones dispatchers received reporting the blaze.
The 911 calls from March 26 raised further questions about emergency officials’ response to last week’s fast-growing fire, which damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes and burned 6 square miles in the mountains southwest of Denver.
When Appel called, she said smoke was blowing over her house.
“Yeah, it’s about 5 acres and growing, so they’ve got crews on the way,” the dispatcher told her.
“OK. Thank you,” Appel replied before hanging up.
A friend also later called to ask authorities to check on Appel, explaining that she was getting chemotherapy and her husband was out of state. However, that call seems to have come after it was too late to help her.
Residents began calling to express concern about the fire and high winds around 2 p.m., and at first dispatchers assured many the heavy smoke and flames weren’t a threat. Later they acknowledged that there was some trouble with a prescribed burn but told callers that firefighters were at the scene.
The Jefferson County sheriff’s office didn’t know the fire had gotten out of control until a local fire department sent a notification at 5 p.m., prompting it to start evacuations spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said.
“It’s important to note that her call came in very early, that’s why the response is what it is,” Kelley said.
The sheriff’s office doesn’t have a timeline of who called when but officials say Appel’s call to report smoke was among the early calls. Sam Lucas, the husband of the couple found dead, had also called to report the fire.
According to authorities’ log released Wednesday, the fire first crossed the burn’s containment lines built at 1:40 p.m. Firefighters requested evacuations three hours later when it crossed a drainage.
“We have to listen to what groups in the field are telling us,” Kelley said of why evacuations weren’t called earlier. “If they’re saying there’s a controlled burn and the state forest service is on the scene, we don’t just create evacuations for a fire that has gone outside the perimeter.”
Residents in the mountains are particularly sensitive to smoke in the air, and it wasn’t unusual for dispatchers to receive calls about seeing smoke from the controlled burn, Kelley said. The dispatchers’ messages to callers changed as the situation changed, she said.
A neighbor has said Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda, 76, were packed and ready to go if they got orders to evacuate. Authorities say they did eventually get one but it’s not clear when.
Appel’s friend said Appel – who didn’t get an evacuation notice – wasn’t answering her phone. Meanwhile, authorities say evacuation orders were sent in error to homes that weren’t in the fire’s path.
“She had her stuff to leave. The car had a flat tire,” the caller said.
The dispatcher took Appel’s number and address and said, “We’ll get someone out there to make sure she got out, OK?”
Searchers found human remains in Appel’s burned-out home on Saturday.
“The information at the time was we had a controlled burn, and fire agencies were on scene,” said Jefferson County sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer. “In law enforcement, you want to minimize radio traffic. There would be no reason to air out something that’s already common knowledge.”
He said the dispatchers weren’t giving interviews about what happened.
The fire appears to have been sparked by a controlled burn set four days earlier by the Colorado State Forest Service. A review has been ordered by the governor.
The first wave of automated calls ordering residents to evacuate was sent at 5:05 p.m. but they went to the wrong list of phone numbers, Techmeyer said.
“It was way too large geographically,” he said, adding that he had no other details. “That was a user error on our end.”
That call was halted, and a new round of calls was started at 5:23 p.m., he said.
The 911 recordings show that that initial bad round of notifications caused even more confusion in the dispatch center.
Calls from people who wrongly got evacuation notices are mixed with more residents calling to report smoke and fire nearby. Dispatchers appear to become increasingly overwhelmed while fielding so many types of calls back-to-back.
Simultaneously, residents who were under mandatory evacuation called dispatchers to find out if they had to leave their homes. Some of those people do not indicate they received evacuation notices before calling 911 themselves.
A caller named Neal Biller on Sunburst Drive told a dispatcher he didn’t get an evacuation call but a neighbor did.
The dispatcher said he didn’t need to evacuate if he didn’t get a call, but Biller asked her to look up his address.
A few seconds later the dispatcher said, “OK, yeah, it looks like on Sunburst you are to evacuate, so yes, do evacuate.”
“Wow. Really?” Biller said.
“I wonder why you didn’t get the call?” the dispatcher asked.
“Well I’m glad I called,” Biller said.
Some dispatchers did urge people to err on the side of caution and evacuate if they felt they were in danger.
FirstCall Network Inc., which provides the county’s automated phone call system, said the first round of calls went to anyone who had signed up for the service on a county website, whether or not they lived in the evacuation area.
FirstCall logged slightly different times for the erroneous call – 4:50 p.m. – and for the start of the second round of calls, 5:16 p.m.
FirstCall’s president, Matthew Teague, said the corrected calls went to 1,089 phone numbers in six waves, the last one starting at 9:14 p.m.
Teague said 12 busy signals were detected and 32 calls weren’t answered. Another 90 calls went to numbers that had been disconnected or were not set up to receive voice calls. In each case, the system made three attempts to call those numbers, he said.
Intermountain Rural Electric Association, which provides power to the area, cut off the electricity at about 8 p.m., spokesman Mike Kopp said.
That could have rendered some phones inoperable, but residents with cellphones still could get the evacuation order, Techmeyer said.
By REMA RAHMAN, Associated Press … Associated Press writers Dan Elliott, P. Solomon Banda and Catherine Tsai contributed to this report.
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