CONIFER, Colo. (AP) – Some residents in the path of a Colorado wildfire weren’t warned to flee because of a problem in an automated call system that relayed a mandatory evacuation order, authorities said Thursday.
About 12 percent of the people who should have received the calls on Monday did not, Jefferson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said. The problem was probably caused by a software glitch in system, she added.
Kelley said the county had changed to a new automated call system in the past year. Officials were reviewing the system to see what went wrong.
More than 500 firefighters were at the blaze Thursday, hoping to expand their containment line before hot and windy weather returns this weekend. The fire has blackened about 6 square miles in the mostly rural area southwest of Denver’s populous suburbs. It was apparently sparked by a state-prescribed burn that was stirred up by strong winds on Monday.
Since then, 27 homes have been damaged or destroyed, an elderly couple was found dead at one of the homes and a woman whose house was destroyed remains missing.
Crews had built about 15 percent of lines to secure the fire’s 8.5-mile perimeter by Wednesday night. Kelley said that number would be much higher by the end of the day Thursday.
Two planes that drop fire retardant were diverted to a fire in South Dakota, but four Black Hawk helicopters from the Colorado Air National Guard were still dropping water on the blaze.
The bodies of 77-year-old Sam Lamar Lucas and 76-year-old Linda M. Lucas — known by some of her friends as Moaneti Lucas — were found at their home, which was destroyed by flames. Kelley said officials have determined that the couple received an evacuation call, but it was not clear when.
Kelley said it’s not yet clear whether the missing woman received an evacuation notice.
Officials originally said 900 residences received automated evacuation notices.
Kelley said residents should evacuate whenever they feel in danger.
“You do not have to wait for the sheriff’s office to tell you to evacuate,” she said.
A team was expanded its search for the missing woman after scouring 60 acres around her home, going over some spots three times. The team includes six dogs, four trained to find living people and two to find bodies.
Authorities were allowing evacuees from some areas to return home Thursday, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many.
Gov. John Hickenlooper got his first look at the destruction caused by the fire, a day after he suspended the use of controlled burns on state lands pending an investigation of the wildfire. The ban doesn’t affect federal land — which accounts for over a third of Colorado — but the governor urged counties and federal agencies to consider a temporary suspension.
Hickenlooper, who returned from a trade mission to Mexico on Wednesday, said he doesn’t blame evacuated homeowners for being angry. But he has also defended their use generally, saying they have helped prevent large, costly wildfires.
“This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry,” deputy state forester Joe Duda said. The Forest Service said protocols were followed for last week’s controlled burn, but that wind gusts caused the blaze to re-ignite.
Glenn Davis, who said his friends were forced from their homes by the fire, said he wants changes in how those burns are conducted. “People up here want accountability,” Davis said. “Telling me, `I’m sorry’ doesn’t really make a difference.”
Conifer resident Don Heiden, who was displaced by the fire, said he wasn’t ready to blame the government.
“Accidents happen. If there was negligence, they’ll figure it out,” said Heiden, who believes his home was spared. “To me, it’s more of an act of God.”
By REMA RAHMAN, Associated Press
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