DENVER (AP/CBS4) – A local investigation into a deadly Colorado wildfire officially confirmed Thursday that it was caused by wind-blown embers from a prescribed burn set by the state forest service – but it found no criminal wrongdoing.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday the Colorado State Forest Service followed an approved plan for a controlled burn it conducted in the area on March 22. It said wind-blown embers from the burn area ignited the Lower North Fork fire on March 26. Three people were found dead in the fire zone in the Rocky Mountain foothills southwest of Denver.
The wildfire blackened six square miles and damaged or destroyed 23 residences before it was contained nearly a week later. The Jefferson County Assessor’s Office determined that losses at those residences exceeded $11 million, according to the sheriff’s report.
A separate review commissioned by Gov. John Hickenlooper said firefighters departed from their plan on one point by patrolling the perimeter of the prescribed burn for only two consecutive days after it was ignited.
The state-commissioned report was released Monday by William Bass, a veteran forest manager who led a team of specialists in examining only the controlled burn.
It concluded there was little firefighters could have done differently to prevent the disaster that followed the burn. Bass, a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, said firefighters decided against going back as planned on the third day because they saw little risk.
The sheriff’s investigation said crews conducted mop-up operations at the prescribed burn site on March 22 and March 23, according to plan. They patrolled the burn perimeter on March 24 – again according to plan – and returned on March 26 to monitor the burn and retrieve equipment, it said.
Bass said the wildfire showed that a 200-foot buffer – which he called standard practice – wasn’t enough for the high winds that raked the controlled burn on March 26.
The sheriff’s office said it worked with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in its probe of the wildfire.
The Jefferson County coroner’s office is still working to determine the cause of the deaths. Authorities also are looking into problems with an automated phone call system that was intended to send evacuation messages to residents. Some people in the area did not get a call.
The following is the new release from Jefferson County:
On April 18, 2012, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office released the investigation reports on the cause and origin of the Lower North Fork Fire. The Sheriff’s Office worked in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Interior– Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – U.S. Forest Service.
This investigation is separate from the prescribed fire review conducted through Governor Hickenlooper’s office.
The reports confirm previous assumptions that a prescribed burn conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service caused the fire. Based on the review of all available documents and witness interviews, it was determined that the CSFS followed or exceeded the parameters set by the Lower North Fork burn plan, and that no criminal violation of the Colorado Revised Statutes occurred.
The reports are in CD format and also include photographs relating to the investigation. You are welcome to pick up your set of CD’s, please limit one per media outlet, at the Sheriff’s Office lobby located at 200 Jefferson County Parkway, Golden, before 5:30 p.m.
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