USA — CONIFER, Colo. Mary Thuente says her neighbors got an automated call warning them to flee their home as a wildfire spread over the mountains southwest of Denver, but she never got one before she left.
Jack Ogg doesn’t think he got a telephone warning either, though it’s possible it may have come while he was outside rounding up his dogs and his neighbors’ pets. After that, he rushed away with 15 people and animals squeezed into his Jeep after firefighters asked him to take some neighbors with him.
Authorities said Thursday that an estimated 12 percent of people in the path of the wildfire, apparently sparked by a prescribed burn that flared up, never got a call to evacuate. Jefferson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said a software glitch may have been to blame, though officials were still reviewing what went wrong.
But FirstCall Network Inc., which handles the county’s system that automatically calls residents, said the system worked exactly as it should. The 12 percent represents residents who either had disconnected numbers or didn’t answer, said Matthew Teague, president of the Baton Rouge, La., company.
“Reaching 88 percent of people in the middle of a weekday is a great percentage,” he said.
Officials originally said about 900 residences received automated evacuation notices. Teague said it would take a few minutes to notify that many households.
A couple found dead in the burn area Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and Linda M. Lucas, 76, who was known by some of her friends as Moaneti Lucas received an evacuation call, but it was not clear when, Kelley said.
Fire zone resident Ann Appel, who remains missing, also was called, Kelley said. The Appel family issued a statement Thursday saying they were “deeply grateful” to those searching for her.
One of the Lucases’ neighbors, Eddie Schneider, said he didn’t get a call and he knew the couple were packed to go if they received an order to evacuate. Schneider said he left after a firefighter warned him to leave.
The fire has damaged or destroyed about 25 homes and has blackened about 6 square miles in the mostly rural area southwest of Denver’s populous suburbs. More than 500 firefighters were at the blaze Thursday, hoping to expand their containment line in case hot and windy weather returns this weekend as predicted.
Crews cleared lines on 45 percent of the fire’s 8.5-mile perimeter and made enough progress to allow some residents to return home Thursday. Kelley said 180 homes were still evacuated.
Two planes that drop fire retardant were diverted to a fire in South Dakota, but four Black Hawk helicopters from the Colorado Air National Guard were still dropping water on the blaze.
Coe Meyer, who fled before getting a call to evacuate, viewed his burned home for the first time Thursday. He criticized the state for conducting a prescribed burn after such a dry March.
“The trappings of 62 years are gone,” he said.
The controlled fire was meant to reduce vegetation that could fuel a devastating blaze around homes and watersheds.
Like several other residents, Meyer said he called the sheriff’s office after seeing smoke near his home Monday but was told not to worry. The Colorado State Forest Service, which conducted last week’s prescribed burn, said crews checking on the fire Monday afternoon reported no smoke, but when winds suddenly picked up, they saw embers blow across the containment lines into an unburned patch of land across a road.
While residents raised concerns about Jefferson County’s phone notification system, Pueblo County emergency managers said they have used their system without major problems. Those instances, however, generally involve less than 100 calls, said Tim Nawrocki, communications manager for the county Office of Emergency Management.
“It does automatic redials for numbers that were busy or there was no pickup,” he said.
Phone numbers for residents with land lines are placed into the system’s database by the same company that provides the locations of people who make 911 calls, Nawrocki said. People who have only cellphones must go to a website to register their numbers.
System managers can determine what areas get the calls by mapping them on a computer screen or entering address parameters.
“But usually the simplest is to draw a radius around the incident,” Nawrocki said.
El Paso County has found that there can be delays if a larger area must be called, or if the system needs to call back many people who don’t answer, sheriff’s Lt. Lari Sevene said. Officials educate residents about what to expect on caller ID, so they don’t inadvertently ignore an alert.
Sevene said she also reminds residents near wildfires that they can leave before getting an evacuation call.
“If there’s a shift in wind, that shift could happen before we have an opportunity to change our messaging,” she said.
State and federal agencies usually give some public notice of prescribed burns, partly to warn residents that they may see smoke and shouldn’t be alarmed. The state Forest Service won’t release details on what kind of warning was given to residents near this fire because that is one of the issues that will be examined in an independent review of the blaze, spokesman Ryan Lockwood said.
On Wednesday, Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered a suspension of the use of prescribed burns on state land. He visited the area Thursday after returning from a trade mission to Mexico and pledged a “very, very thorough review” of the rules for such fires.
“We’re going to get every single fact we can with a great sense of urgency,” Hickenlooper said. He said the review would take weeks, not months.
He cautioned against a rush to judgment. “People are human, right? They’re going to make mistakes,” he said.
Asked whether the state should reimburse residents for their losses, Hickenlooper said Colorado has traditionally relied on individual homeowners to insure themselves.
Coloradans could change the rules and make the state financially liable for damages linked to the actions of state employees, but that would require tax increases, he said.