DENVER (AP) — The Colorado State Forest Service conducted a 50-acre prescribed burn on March 22, part of a normal plan to consume fuel in the rugged, pine-filled foothills southwest of Denver. It wasn't far from site of the monstrous Hayman Fire 10 years ago, and this burn was a precaution.
Once the fire was out, crews patrolled the perimeter daily to make sure it stayed that way. And it was on one such patrol the hot afternoon of Monday, March 26, that they spotted an ember blown across the perimeter and lighting grass. What they hadn't done in all their methodical planning was ask for real-time weather forecasts that would have predicted vicious, swirling winds.
From there, a deadly cascade of missteps combined with the vagaries of wind and fire to produce another tragedy in the Rocky Mountains, new documents obtained this week show. The 6-square-mile blaze killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes near the small town of Conifer and raised questions about what could have been done to contain the human and material losses — questions that will be addressed by an out-of-state investigator.
"This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry," deputy state forester Joe Duda said.
"People up here want accountability," said resident Glenn Davis. "Telling me 'I'm sorry' doesn't really make a difference."
Volunteer firemen responding to the first reports of smoke couldn't talk to the state crew because it used a different radio frequency. One fire chief had to drive along the winding roads in the pine-dotted region to find out what was going on at the controlled burn site, losing precious minutes to act.
Dispatchers, too, were in the dark, reassuring some frightened residents as the smoke and winds gathered that events were under control. When authorities realized more than three hours later that, in fact, nothing was under control, they sent out waves of emergency evacuation telephone calls — some of which reached no one, while others went to out-of-state numbers.
Some early callers died in the inferno. Harried dispatchers hung up on other callers, too overwhelmed to respond.
It was 1:40 p.m. when the wind-blown ember ignited grass. Gusts would soon exceed 60 mph. The first evacuation orders wouldn't go out until 5:05 p.m.
Forest Service records show the controlled burn crew didn't ask for an updated special weather forecast — called a spot forecast — from the day of the burn until an hour after the burn reignited. Over that weekend the weather service had issued a red flag warning for dire fire conditions for the Conifer area, some 8,200 feet high in the Rockies.
"In the fire world we always have what we refer to as situational awareness, and as a burn boss who is leading crews, it is imperative that the burn boss is aware of the conditions, not only now, but what is going to be occurring in the future," said Chris Dicus, a professor of wildland fire fuels management at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
"Are you looking for a small happy fire, or a large angry fire?" Dicus said. "The weather forecast you need will change based on what your objectives are."
Bill McLaughlin, chief of the Elk Creek Volunteer Fire Department, couldn't talk to the forest service that Monday because it was on a different radio frequency.
"We didn't know in advance which (radio) channel they were on," McLaughlin said of the state forest service crew.
He wasted precious minutes driving to the controlled burn to find out what happened. The map he was using was 18 years old — new maps are too expensive — and it didn't show newer homes that likely were in the line of fire.
"We were making some educated guesses on where exactly the structures were," he said.
Within 10 minutes, residents began calling the Jefferson County 911 system, worried about the smoke. Some were found dead in the aftermath.