State Forest Service Admits Controlled Burn Caused Wildfire

March 29, 2012

Firefighters are finally making progress on the wildfire burning southwest of Denver.  Officials announced the fire is now 15% contained.  More than 500 firefighters, from all over the country, are on the ground.  And aircraft are dropping loads of water and retardant.  But as Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus reports, attention has turned to what started the fire.  

Here is a transcript of Ben's report:

Reporter Ben Markus: At Conifer High School, the operational base camp for firefighters, men with soot-covered faces rest in a parking lot full of fire trucks from all over the state.  In another of the school’s parking lots, Jacki Kelley took the podium for the evening news conference.  The spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department spoke over the hum  of generators.  She had good news for a change.

Jacki Kelley: We’re making progress, it was a good day, and I really want people to understand that. Any level of containment is moving in the right direction.

Reporter: But what was a routine press conference turned into a mea culpa when Deputy State Forester Joe Duda addressed the media.

Joe Duda: I just wanted to say on behalf of the Colorado State Forest Service, this is heartbreaking and we’re sorry.

Reporter: Duda confirmed what many residents believed: embers from a prescribed burn by the Forest Service caused the fire.  Duda says they’re putting together an independent review team to determine how it happened.  He says burn crews followed all proper procedure and even checked the area on Monday, the day the fire started.

Duda: ... and seen absolutely no sign of smoke or fire.  When the winds kicked up strong in the afternoon is when the event started.

Reporter: Then a man standing next to the media asked Duda if he would have authorized a prescribed burn in his own neighborhood during one of the driest months on record.  Duda’s response:

Duda: Well that’s the purpose of the review panel, to look at the factors that went into consideration of the prescribed burn.

Reporter: After the press conference was officially over reporters swarmed the man, Glenn Davis, a Conifer resident who hasn’t been evacuated yet.

Glenn Davis: I’m not an expert, but I can look and say this is 4-5 weeks after a snow, we have wind coming 4-5 days later, that up here it’s easily going to be 50 miles an hour. Why do we need a prescribed burn?

Reporter: He wasn’t the only angry resident in attendance.  Dave Mazza was there too.  He narrowly escaped the fire on Monday.

Dave Mazza: It was hairy, man. That was as much thrill as I want in my life for a long time.

Reporter: Mazza saw a picture of his house on the news recently, so he’s hopeful it survived the fire.  But he’s frustrated by his neighbor’s losses, especially the elderly couple who lost their lives.

Mazza: I know the people that died, I know the people that lost their homes. I know a lot of those people on that road. This is our community, I mean we have gatherings a couple times a year, these are people that look out for each other and care for each other.

Reporter: Mazza has a hard time trusting the Colorado Forest Service’s assertion that an independent review panel can get to the truth of what happened.  He says it took this long for them to admit they caused the fire.

Mazza: Come on, come be honest with us, you know, we saw it.

Reporter: Evacuated residents Murry and Denise Gustafson also saw it - smoke coming from the prescribed burn.  They noticed it last Thursday, the day the Forest Service set the fire.  They couldn’t believe it, considering it was so dry and windy.  And Maury wasn’t moved by the Forest Service apology.

Murry Gustafson: I mean to say the apology, I mean just to say you’re sorry, I mean that for the people that lost their home, I mean that’s a little tough to accept.  

Reporter: The independent review is expected to be finished in about three weeks.  In the meantime, Governor John Hickenlooper has ordered a ban on prescribed burns on state land.  

[Photo: CPR/Ben Markus]