JEFFERSON COUNTY — Families driven from their homes by a fast-moving wall of fire Monday evening said they stayed longer than was safe because authorities told them that the smoke they were smelling was from a controlled burn that was being monitored.
"I thought we weren't going to make it," said Kim Olson, who barely escaped the fire that killed her neighbors, Samuel, 77, and Linda "Moaneti" Lucas, 76. "I thought we were going to die right there."
On Wednesday afternoon, Colorado State Forest Service deputy forester Joe Duda said the Lower North Fork fire that has scorched more than 4,100 acres of land, burned 27 homes and killed the Lucases sparked from a controlled burn on Denver Water Board land last week.
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"This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry," Duda said. "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."
Duda said the controlled burn reignited in heavy winds Monday that fanned embers and blew them into an unburned area outside a containment line established on March 19.
The Lucases, like many of their neighbors, had reported seeing smoke from the burn throughout the weekend but were rebuffed, they said, by dispatchers. Several residents of the Pleasant Park Corridor subdivision, including Olson and her neighbor Dave Massa, said they received no emergency notification calls before the fire swept through the neighborhood.
Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said Wednesday that she had heard no reports of residents who registered to receive an emergency notification not getting one.
Olson said she first called 911 about 2 p.m. Monday, around the time Duda said fire crews patrolling the controlled burn saw it flare up.
She told a dispatcher that she smelled smoke. She didn't know where it was coming from but was worried that the controlled burn was out of control. She said the dispatcher told her that there was nothing to worry about.
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Olson went outside to look for the source of the smell and saw plumes of smoke rising from the area where the controlled burn had been. She returned to her house and called 911 again. She said a dispatcher told her not to call every time that she smelled smoke.
Three hours later, Olson, her husband, their three kids and the family pets made a dash for their lives.
"I saw flames at the top of the driveway. I was absolutely terrified," Olson said. "I felt hysterical."
Olson drove a Jeep ahead of her husband, who took the children in another car. One of her kids videotaped the harrowing passage down the hill. Flames were devouring tall pine trees on both sides of the road.
They had no idea whether the road ahead was cut off by fire because they had received no warning, Olson said.
Sam and Moaneti Lucas were making final preparations to leave their home when they were engulfed by fire, Moaneti's sister Mellissa Lucas of Bethlehem, Conn., said Wednesday.
Mellissa Lucas said the fire caught up to them as her sister waited in the driveway for Sam, who had gone back into the garage. "We'll never know why they didn't get away," she said. "It's such a sad thing to happen."
Sam may have gone back into the house to turn on a fire suppression system that would have sprayed foam on the building to protect it, Mellissa Lucas said.
The Lucases had noticed the flames from the controlled burn on Saturday. One neighbor said Sam called 911 that day to say the controlled burn had flared up again.
On Monday afternoon, Sam called his son-in-law to say he and Moaneti were were packing their belongings in a pickup truck because they spotted smoke only 2 miles from their home.
Mary Ann Ellis' home was spared, but she lost her good friends. She found little comfort in the apology offered by Duda.
"It was obvious. A 2-year-old would have known not to start that fire," Ellis said. "Someone made the wrong decision."
Ellis was shaking as she described the loss of her friends, the Lucases.
"We ran for our lives, and they just didn't make it," Ellis said.
Massa, who lives within a mile of the Lucas home, said he first called 911 about the controlled burn on Thursday afternoon. It appeared out of control and burned through the night, he said. He, too, reported smoke from the burn throughout the weekend.
He also said he did not receive an emergency call to evacuate, although he was signed up to get one.
Bill Suvada, who has lived on Broken Arrow Road since 1973, did receive automated emergency call. He loaded artwork and American Indian rugs in a pickup truck and drove his parents, Bill and Marge, who are in their 80s, down the mountain as they fretted about their home.
"We got the fear put into us," Suvada said.
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Containment of blaze estimated at 15 percent
About 500 firefighters from several states turned their focus Wednesday to building containment lines around the wildfire. Up to now, the fire's erratic pattern has forced firefighters to focus on protecting homes, not stopping the burn. Crews had achieved 15 percent containment on the fire by late afternoon. The estimate of the affected area was updated to 4,140 acres. To contain the fire, officials estimate they will need a fire line that is 8½ miles long. Because of weather conditions, only minimal growth along the perimeter is expected today.
27 sites damaged or razed; 267 lack power
A total of 27 structures have been damaged or destroyed. The owners of all but one structure have been notified, officials said. Intermountain Rural Electric Association said 267 structures are without power and estimate that it must rebuild 2 to 3 miles of power line.
Over 53,000 gallons of retardant dropped
Tankers dropped more than 4,100 gallons of retardant on Wednesday and Air National Guard helicopters dropped 49,000 gallons of water. The two heavy air tankers are being transferred to fires in South Dakota,but a single-engine tanker remains here.
Crew digs in rubble of missing woman's home
A search team using dogs continued to look for a missing woman. Her home was among those destroyed. About 60 acres have been searched, and crews were digging in the rubble of the woman's home Wednesday evening.
Evacuees briefed, told return may take a week
Officials briefed about 90 people Wednesday evening at the evacuation center, and residents said it was the most informative session yet. But they were told it could be a week until they could get back into their homes and that upset some.
"We're tired of it," said evacuee Amanda Walker.
As for the news that governor has halted all prescribed burns, Walker said, "too little, too late."
Gov. Hickenlooper to tour fire area today
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper landed at Denver International Airport late Wednesday and said he would visit the fire crews in Jefferson County today. The governor was in Mexico on a trade mission, which ended Wednesday. He canceled plans to stay in Mexico for a brief family vacation. Hickenlooper, who while in Mexico ordered a halt to controlled burns, noted the state's hot, dry condition and urged the public to "pray for rain."
Donations sought to help fire victims
The Elk Creek Fire Protection District is joining with the Mountain Resource Center to collect cash donations to assist fire victims. Please send donation checks to:
Mountain Resource Center
P.O. Box 425
Conifer, CO 80433
Write, "Lower North Fork Fire Fund" on the memo line of your check. For additional information, contact chaplain Beth Graham of the Elk Creek Fire Protection District at 303-816-9385, ext. 15, or the Mountain Resource Center at 303-838-7552.