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Colorado holds back on prescribed burns after deadly wildfire

CONIFER, Colo. -- Colorado will likely suspend prescribed burns like the one blamed for the deadly wildfire near Denver, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday as video of one family’s harrowing escape from flames emerged.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the fire, which is still at zero containment, reignited from a controlled burn that was meant to reduce fuel for a fire.

Hickenlooper said he doesn't blame some of the 900 evacuated homeowners in the mountains southwest of Denver for being angry.

"Their houses have been destroyed. Their lives have been changed forever. It's not their fault," Hickenlooper told KOA radio.

Joe Duda, deputy state forester, apologized for the blaze. “This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry,” Duda said in a prepared statement. “Despite the best efforts of the Colorado State Forest Service to prevent this very kind of tragic wildfire, we now join Colorado in hoping for the safety of those fighting a large fire, and mourning the loss of life and property … and we hope for the safety of crews as they continue to fight the fire.”

On Tuesday, Boulder County officials suspended prescribed burns for the time being. The county had been carrying out prescribed burns on county land, the Denver Post reported, while dozens of farmers and ranchers were doing the same on their properties.

On Wednesday, a cellphone video taken as Doug Gulick and Kimberly Olson drove two cars out of their neighborhood showed the swiftness of approaching flames. Their son, Caleb, 13, shot the video.

“What is she stopping for,” one child cries frantically from Gulick's back seat when Olson's car slows as the family drives through smoke-filled streets. Gulick is heard trying to reassure the child they will be OK. The couple told the Denver Post they did not receive a warning about the wildfire encroaching on their neighborhood.

Meanwhile, some 400 firefighters from several states were focusing on building containment lines around the 6-square-mile wildfire, which broke out Monday. Until now, the fire's erratic pattern has forced firefighters to focus on protecting homes, not stopping the burn.

"We're going to try to take a bite out of this fire," Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said.

As crews dig lines around the fire's perimeter, a search team is using dogs to look for a woman missing in the fire zone. Her home was among 27 destroyed or damaged in the blaze.

The Colorado State Forest Service conducted a 35-acre burn in the region Thursday — on land belonging to Denver's water authority — said forest service spokesman Ryan Lockwood.

Crews finished the effort Friday and patrolled the perimeter daily to ensure it was out, Lockwood said. It was during Monday's patrol that a state forest service crew spotted the wildfire — also on Denver Water property — and alerted authorities, Lockwood said.

It wasn't clear if the wildfire was inside the controlled burn zone.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office will determine the cause of the blaze, while the Colorado State Forest Service was conducting its own review, Lockwood said.

Stacy Chesney, a spokeswoman for Denver Water, said the agency was "trying to be proactive" to protect water supplies from soil runoff caused by deforestation.

The area has several watersheds that feed metropolitan Denver and is several miles from the location of a 2002 fire, one of Colorado's worst, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings over 215 square miles.

Protocols for controlled fires include monitoring them until they are determined to be cold — meaning nothing is at risk for reigniting, said Roberta D'Amico, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Fire officials normally check weather, terrain and other factors to create a burn plan and alert municipal authorities, D'Amico said.

Carole Walker, director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said state agencies have limited immunity for performing regular duties.

"They have immunity on the duties of managing a forest. It would have to be determined they were negligent or acting outside their duties" for property owners to seek compensation, Walker said.

Officials found the bodies of a couple at a destroyed home, said Daniel Hatlestad of the Jefferson County Incident Management Team. They were identified as Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and Linda M. Lucas, 76. A cause of death was pending for both.

On Tuesday, evacuees formed a long line to see a list of damaged properties posted by the Red Cross at Conifer High School. Residents groaned when Hatlestad told them it wasn't known when the fire would be contained.

"I understand that it's a difficult situation, but it's our house, and we're in the target zone," said John Ryan, 47.

Hatlestad said the fire burned so hot that it melted farm and construction machinery, creating a silver stream of molten metal.

The fire threat in much of Colorado has grown during an unusually dry and warm March. On March 18, a grass fire charred 37 square miles in eastern Colorado and injured three firefighters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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