DENVER (AP) – The family of a woman presumed killed in a Colorado wildfire is questioning why a firefighter didn’t leave his vehicle and walk past a chain blocking her driveway to warn her to evacuate.
The volunteer firefighter went house-to-house telling residents to leave, approaching homes with his vehicle lights and siren on, said Dan Hatlestad, a spokesman for the firefighter’s department, Inter-Canyon Fire/Rescue.
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, Hatlestad said Monday.
The firefighter didn’t reach three homes because their driveways were blocked, Hatlestad said. One of the three addresses was the home of Ann Appel, who is believed to have died in the fire.
The firefighter was following standard safety procedures when he didn’t enter the closed-off properties and instead went on to warn other residents, Hatlestad said. There was smoke but no fire in the area at the time, he said.
Appel’s family said it would have taken three minutes to walk from the chain to the house. The home isn’t visible from the chain and an aerial map shows the home was about 400 feet from the end of the road, down a curved driveway.
Steep, downhill gravel 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 by Appel’s sister-in-law, Susan Appel Sorenson.
Hatlestad declined to comment on the family statement, saying he hadn’t seen it.
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, including Appel.
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.
Appel was among the early callers, according to audio recordings and documents released by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. She was told crews were on the way.
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. A second, corrected wave of automated calls began at about 5:23 p.m.
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.
“The family understood that fire departments were equipped to open these security devices in the event of an emergency,” the statement said.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley declined to comment on the family’s assertions about the chain.
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.
The volunteer firefighter began going house-to-house at about 4 p.m., Hatlestad said, and between 4:20 and 4:30 p.m., the firefighter told Sam Lucas to evacuate.
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 Lucas’ exact words, Hatlestad said.
“Right now you need to get out of here,” the firefighter recalled telling Lucas.
The Jefferson County documents 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.
Lucas was 77, and his wife, Linda, was 76.
By DAN ELLIOTT, Associated Press
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