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First review complete after deadly Colorado wildfire

Dan Elliott
The Associated Press
David Zalubowski/AP fileOne home stands untouched at left while another home at right smolders after burning in the Lower North Fork Wildfire in the foothills community of Conifer, Colo., southwest of Denver, on March 27.
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DENVER – A team of specialists completed its review of a prescribed burn blamed for a deadly Colorado wildfire that raised questions about safety and emergency response.

The report was expected to be released later Monday and deal with preparations for the prescribed burn conducted on March 22 in the foothills 25 miles southwest of Denver.

Four days later, high winds fanned embers from the burn, and a fast-moving wildfire tore through a forested subdivision with spacious lots and narrow gravel roads. Three people were found dead at their homes.



The fire blackened six square miles, damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes, and displaced hundreds of people.

Gov. John Hickenlooper asked William Bass, supervisor of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, to lead the review of the prescribed burn. Bass is a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service with extensive fire-related experience.



The review only looked at the burn until it was declared a wildfire. An operations log said that occurred at 2:30 p.m. on March 26, about an hour after the first sparks crossed the burn’s containment lines.

Authorities have said they believe the prescribed burn ignited the wildfire. A separate investigation is looking into the precise cause. The 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 sent a recorded message to about 1,000 numbers telling people in the fire’s path to evacuate. Some people in the evacuation area did not get a call.



The Colorado State Forest Service – part of Colorado State University and separate from the U.S. Forest Service – conducted the prescribed burn. It was done on land owned by Denver’s water utility, which contracts with the State Forest Service to manage the utility’s forest lands.

Prescribed burns are intended to consume dry underbrush, fallen branches and other fuel that could worsen a wildfire.

The State Forest Service, like other forest agencies, has an extensive list of requirements that must be met before a controlled burn can be started, including weather conditions and follow-up patrols. It was one of those patrols that spotted embers that had blown across the perimeter and ignited dry grass on March 26.

One unanswered question is why the State Forest Service apparently didn’t request updated forecasts on the two days immediately before the wildfire erupted. The National Weather Service issued advisories on both days indicating the high winds would rake the area on the day the wildfire started.

A broader review of prescribed burns conducted on state lands or by state agencies is also under way. Hickenlooper banned prescribed burns on state land until that review is complete.


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