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Colorado sheriff notes problems with fire warnings

Crews building the last few miles of fire lines to contain a wildfire southwest of Denver were expected to face warm temperatures and gusty afternoon winds Saturday.
Wildfires Colorado, Horse Trailer
The ruins of a horse trailer destroyed by a wildfire is pictured near Conifer, Colo., on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. Two people died in the wildfire that started Monday afternoon. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)Ed Andrieski / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Crews building the last few miles of fire lines to contain a wildfire southwest of Denver were expected to face warm temperatures and gusty afternoon winds Saturday.

So far, firefighters have contained about 90 percent of the 6-square-mile wildfire, which was apparently sparked by a state controlled burn that sprang to life Monday in strong winds. The fire damaged or destroyed at least 25 homes, and residents of about 180 homes remain evacuated.

Jefferson County has tightened its fire restrictions to temporarily ban anything producing an open flame in unincorporated parts of the county, including federal land.

On Saturday morning, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office used an automated call system to warn residents of about 500 homes that gusty winds and dry conditions mean they could be asked to evacuate at a moment's notice.

After the fire started, sheriff's officials alerted people to evacuate via the call system, but authorities have said about 12 percent of the people they intended to notify didn't get a warning. Sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said some people likely hung up after hearing a pause that precedes the automated message, or their phone lines may have been busy.

He said that can happen in any emergency, but authorities were most concerned that there wasn't any attempt to reach an unknown number of additional people registered to get the telephone alerts.

"We want to get to the bottom of this as much as our citizens do," Techmeyer said Friday.

The company that handles the system, Baton Rouge, La.-based FirstCall Network Inc., said it worked exactly as it should have. FirstCall provides the alert service to as many as 200 agencies nationwide.

"I know that everyone who opted in got the call," FirstCall President Mark Teague said Friday. "We're working closely with (county officials) trying to get them all the information they need."

FirstCall's system is set up to call three times at three-minute intervals if a phone line is busy, Teague said. Local agencies can change that if they wish and can decide what message appears on a recipient's telephone if it has caller ID. Jefferson County's system also sends text messages, FirstCall said.

Monday's calls went out in two waves. The first included people outside the evacuation area and even outside Colorado, Techmeyer said. He didn't know the times of the calls.

Sheriff's officials said a couple found dead in the fire zone got a call, as did a woman who remains missing, but it wasn't immediately clear when the calls came.

Rescuers were still searching for Ann Appel, reported missing since Monday, while a memorial service was held Friday for Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and Linda M. Lucas, 76.

There have been other concerns about the response to the fire.

Elk Creek Fire Protection District Chief Bill McLaughlin told KUSA-TV in Denver that state firefighters were using a different radio frequency than local firefighters after flames were spotted, and agencies were driving back and forth for about an hour to relay messages.

McLaughlin later started using two radios, with one tuned to each frequency, KUSA reported.

On Friday, the Colorado State Forest Service released its plan for the controlled burn, showing that planners acknowledged there was a potential for fires to escape and cause a "significant threat" to nearby homes.

However, officials thought it was more likely they'd be able to put out any fire before it got that far, partly because of crews and water on site. Officials who wrote the plan insisted that the forest thinning would help protect those homes from a potential wildfire in the future.

The plan dates from 2006 and covers a series of burns being done in the area for Denver Water.

Under the plan, nearby residents were supposed to get warning letters. The state Forest Service has refused to say if that happened, citing an independent review into the burn. Two residents who lost their homes have said they didn't get the letters.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has suspended prescribed burns on state land, and the U.S. Forest Service has suspended six planned burns in Colorado until the weather improves. Several Colorado counties have enacted fire restrictions.

This March has been unusually dry, but a cold front promised to bring relief late Sunday, National Weather Service meteorologist Lisa Kriederman said.

Crews have been restoring power in the fire zone, and an overnight shelter closed as residents tried to return to normal Friday.

Bill Suvada Jr. said he returned home Thursday but was keeping his car packed in case he has to flee again.

"It was a long night of wondering," Suvada said of his first night home.

Jill Owens remembered rushing with her husband, two kids and animals to leave their home shortly after 5 p.m. Monday as smoke crept closer. She later noticed a text message on her cellphone with an evacuation notice from sheriff's officials at 5:08 p.m. She never got a warning call on her land line. She guesses her house burned about 15 minutes after her family left.

She and her husband learned from watching television Tuesday that their house was gone.

"You never think it's actually going to happen," she said. "I wish I would've stopped and looked back at the house one last time."


Associated Press writers Colleen Slevin and Dan Elliott in Denver contributed to this report.