Lower North Fork Fire Claims Homes, Two Fatalities

March 27, 2012

Click here for JeffCo Sheriff's Office map of the fire and evacuation zones.

A wildfire ripping through the mountains southwest of Denver has damaged or destroyed 23 homes and taken at least two lives.  The blaze, known as the Lower North Fork Fire, has already blackened more than seven square miles of steep forest and rural homes.  And while better weather conditions are helping crews tackle the fire, Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports, the destruction is already widespread.

This is a transcript of Megan’s report:

Reporter Megan Verlee: The fire’s grim toll is starting to be known.  A woman who lives in an area devastated by the blaze is still missing.  And a husband and wife in their 70s were found dead at their home.  Jacki Kelley with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department says investigators are still trying to learn what happened to them.

Jacki Kelley:  We do not know why this couple was left behind in the fire.  We know the mandatory evacuations, we don’t force people out of their homes.  We can’t. 

Reporter: The county did send out 900 reverse 9-1-1 calls on Monday, warning people to leave their houses.  Another 6,500 residents were placed on pre-evacuation orders today. Kelley says people still in their homes should be ready to go in an instant, and those already evacuated shouldn’t expect to go home soon.

Kelley: We've all seen fires look like we can relax now and then spike up and turn very ugly, and safety is the most important thing.  It will be at least a couple of days. 

Reporter: Many evacuees are gathering at Conifer High School, waiting for news of their homes and neighbors.  Willis Griner, Cheryl Bryce, and Bob Webers were hanging out near their cars this morning, feeding their dogs breakfast.  The three say they’re not too worried about their homes, but they’re angry about the suspected cause of the fire, a controlled Colorado State Forest Service burn that got out of hand.  Webers says this was the wrong time to be burning.

Bob Webers: I walked past one of the controlled burn areas and I could still smell it and that was on Saturday morning.  I thought, “Why in the heck are they doing this now, when it’s windy and no water?"

Reporter:  Whatever the cause of the blaze, hundreds of firefighters from around the West have arrived to fight it, pulling up to the Elk Creek Fire Station in big pickups and massive fire trucks.

Firefighters: “You here with JeffCO IMT?” “I am not.  We’re here with Grand Lake Fire, ordered from Craig Dispatch.” 

Reporter: Crews on the ground are being aided by helicopters and air tankers, dropping water and retardant.  Today’s productive frenzy is a distinctly different scene from yesterday.  Mark Techmeyer is with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.

Mark Techmeyer: Today we’re actually, they’re out fighting the fire.  You know, yesterday and last night, there was no fighting that fire.  It was more staying out of its way and get people out of its way more than anything else.

Reporter:  When the sun rose this morning, firefighters had not managed to contain any of the blaze, but Techmeyer says that’s slowly changing.  While the fire is still completely uncontained, Techmeyer is optimistic. 

Techmeyer:  It all starts coming together, with more resources on the ground, resources in the air, wind lying down, we might have some progress. 

Reporter:  Back at Conifer High School, many evacuees waited eagerly for news of their homes.  Mary Warren spent the night in her car with five dogs, two chicks, a duckling and a cockatoo.  She says when it came time to leave, she walked through her house, trying to decide what to take.

Mary Warren: And then you look at the closets, and you look at valuables.  You know, we have the hard drives from the computers, and the dogs and that’s it.  I forgot socks.  It really changes everything.  You, you just... there’s a sense of calm. 

Reporter:  Even though she fears her home was among the burned, Warren says the threat of fire is just something she accepts about living in the mountains.

*****

Here are earlier fire updates:

The Lower North Fork Fire has now scorched 4500 acres in southern Jefferson County.  The fire has claimed sixteen buildings, and possibly two lives.  The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office is investigating two deaths from the burn area.

Hundreds of firefighters have streamed into the area to battle the still-uncontrolled blaze and an airtanker has joined the effort.  Calmer weather is helping crews to make progress.  Mark Techmeyer with the Jefferson County sheriff’s department says there was little firefighters could do against the ferocity of yesterday’s blowup, and even homes with fire defenses may not have survived the blaze.

MARK TECHMEYER:  "It appeared to be more of a straight wall of fire.  Not like a tornado that jumps around, gets one house and skips the next.  I think it was pretty much a wall of fire coming through those neighborhoods.  So, pretty tragic."

900 homes have been evacuated from the fire area.  A few dozen spent the night at Conifer High School, with more sleeping in their cars outside to stay with their animals.  In the morning, excited dogs explored the lot as their owners traded news with neighbors.  

Gaye Barkman spent the night with friends, but came to the high school with her daughter to get information.

GAYE BARKMAN: "We built our house 16 years ago... and my husband has spent 16 years fireproofing it, so I guess we’ll see what happens."

Barkman and her family had a few hours to gather their possesssions yesterday, before their power cut out around 7pm.  They fled as smoke billowed over a nearby ridge. 

BARKMAN: "We had a flood of people texting and emailing and calling our house saying, can we come with our vehicle and get more stuff and we said ‘well, we’re just going to take what’s in the two cars.’"

Unconfirmed reports suggest the fire started on Denver Water land, after a Forest Service controlled burn got out of hand.  Some evacuees expressed frustration that the Service attempted a burn during unseasonably hot and dry weather.  The Forest Service says it pulled its personnel off the fire after reading threats against them on social media.

[Photo: CPR/RWarner]

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