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Lower North Fork Fire Claims 2 Lives, At Least 23 Homes Destroyed

Editor's Note: In this story The Associated Press erroneously reported that resident Kathy Wilkens received a reverse 911 call. Reverse 911 is a registered trademark of Cassidian Communications, Inc., and the emergency notification system used during the wildfire was manufactured by another company.

CONIFER, Colo. (AP/CBS4) - State forest officials had conducted a prescribed burn last week in the same area where a wind-driven wildfire has destroyed at least 23 homes and left two people dead, authorities said Tuesday.

Ryan Lockwood, a spokesman for the Colorado State Forest Service, said his agency conducted the prescribed burn on Thursday on land belonging to the Denver Water Board as part of an ongoing attempt to reduce fire danger. Such burns are usually done to thin out vegetation to reduce the chances of a major wildfire.

"This has been going on for the past year," said Lockwood, who referred questions about the decision to other agency officials.

Watch Howard Nathan's report on the latest information from the fire in the video below:

While the Colorado State Forest Service certainly acknowledges it had a prescribed burn last Thursday in the area, it in no way is taking responsibility for having anything to do with the current fire. It says it will wait for results of the investigation by the sheriff's department.

"The folks that conducted the prescribed burn were very pleased with how it came off and that they were within the parameters," said Joe Duda, Deputy State Forester for Colorado. "I think it's fairly unusual for this to happen so long after the fact and so we'll wait for the sheriff's report."

"We do think this is as a result of prescribed that was hosted by the Colorado State Forest Service last week," Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley later said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

LINK: Statement Sent To CBS4 From The Colorado State Forest Service

Watch Rick Sallinger's report on the investigation into the cause of the fire in the video below:

The fire was estimated to have burned 4,500 acres with zero percent containment.

The fire is burning several miles and mountain ridges west of Denver's tightly populated southwestern suburbs, which are not under threat. The area of pines and grassland is mountainous and sparsely populated, dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. It is about 25 miles southwest of Denver at an altitude that ranges from 7,000 to 8,200 feet.

Take a tour of the fire in Copter4 in the video below:

About 900 homes have been evacuated and more remained under threat. It has destroyed a confirmed 23 houses, authorities said. Another 6,500 homes north of the current evacuation area are on standby to evacuate. The areas on standby are as follows:

-- Dear Creek Mesa
-- Deer Creek Canyon Park
-- Homewood Park
-- Hilldale Pines
-- South Murphy Gulch Road
-- Watson Gulch Road
-- South East of S. Turkey Creek Rd
-- White Deer Valley
-- Jennings Road

Watch Jeff Todd's report on the evacuees and a family who saw their destroyed home on TV in the video below:

The body of a woman was found outside one of the burned homes on Monday evening and a man's body was found inside on Tuesday, said Daniel Hatlestad of the Jefferson County Incident Management Team. The bodies have been identified as Samuel Lucas, 77, and Linda Lucas, 76. They were husband and wife. A third person in the area was reported missing.

Authorities do not yet know whether the deaths were caused by the fire. Both fatalities are being investigated by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

PHOTO GALLERY: Lower North Fork Fire

Strong wind fanned the blaze and prevented air crews from spraying retardant on Monday. Forecasters said gusts were lighter on Tuesday, though a period of stronger winds came in the afternoon.

A heavy tanker and a heavy heli-tanker were ordered and an aerial attack began in mid-morning on Tuesday.

Watch Andrea Lopez's report on the aerial attack in the video below:

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia signed an executive order Tuesday afternoon that authorized the National Guard to provide firefighting assistance at the fire.

"We are concerned first and foremost with the safety of people and property in the fire zone. Our thoughts and prayers are also with those families who have already lost their homes," Garcia said in a statement. "We continue to work with local and federal authorities to provide whatever resources necessary to get this fire under control."

The Colorado Army National Guard launched two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to help battle the fire. The helicopters are equipped with a 500-gallon bucket to drop water on the fire.

Lower North Fork Fire
An image from Copter4 of a UH-60 Blackhawk helping fight the fire (credit: CBS)

Evacuees took shelter at nearby Conifer High School, where cots were set up in the gymnasium and two classrooms became makeshift kennels for dogs and cats. Outside the school, winding mountain roads were crowded with horse trailers as owners moved livestock to the fairgrounds.

Around 3 p.m. Tuesday it was announced that evacuees were being moved to West Jefferson County Middle School.

Watch Karen Leigh's report on residents going to the fairgrounds with large animals in the video below:

County officials updated nervous residents early Tuesday, asking anxious homeowners to leave behind their addresses so they could be called with the status of their homes. They were told they wouldn't be allowed to return home yet.

"We will not be able to allow any citizens back into that area (until) at least the end of the day - and that's not a promise," said Daniel Hatlestad, spokesman for the Jefferson County Incident Management Team.

He said rescuers brought out an unknown number of people who were trying to flee by car but were forced to pull over because of low visibility. Hatlestad said winds neared 90 mph Monday evening, so even cars couldn't outrace the smoke.

"We were pushing people and dogs and cats into fire trucks," he said.

Below is a Web Extra video from Copter4 of the aerial assault on the fire:

Temperatures lately have been reaching into the 70s during an especially dry March, raising the fire danger around Colorado. Up to a dozen smaller fires were reported from the northeast Colorado plains to the southern part of the state.

"Normally, we have a lot of snow this time of year. You'd just never think you'd have to evacuate for a fire in March," said Kathy Wilkens, a 21-year-old resident who fled her home with her husband after a reverse 911 call on Monday night.

Evacuees munched on pizza and fried chicken, with volunteers leading children in games of basketball in the school gym. Rose Applegate said she saw smoke on Monday afternoon and expected to be evacuated.

"I could tell we were in the path," Applegate said. "We gathered up a few things and came here."

By late Tuesday morning, firefighters were said to have established a perimeter around the fire as seen in the map below that includes the evacuation area.

Lower North Fork Fire Map
(credit: CBS)

The Colorado Division of Emergency Management is once again warning of extreme fire danger for Tuesday.

Spokeswoman Micki Troste said Tuesday that the Montezuma Fire in Summit County, the Saw Mill Fire in Jefferson County, the Storm Mountain area in Larimer County and several small fires in Pueblo County that broke out Monday are now under control.

Several other small wildfires and grass fires in Custer County near Wetmore, along with Morgan County, Logan County, and Weld County are also under control.

The Lower North Fork remains the only active fire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it will cover 75 percent of the costs for state and local agencies fighting the fire.

RELATED STORY: Wildfire Smoke Prompts Health Concerns

Spokesman Jerry DeFelice said Tuesday the funding includes costs for firefighters, equipment, shelter and police. DeFelice says it could take a month or more for emergency responders to determine the cost, but once the costs are determined, he expects funding to come quickly. He said the federal funds are provided to ensure firefighters focus on fighting the fire without worrying about funding.

Follow @JeffcoSheriffCo on Twitter for updates.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Wildfire Resources

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Wildfire Photo Galleries

- See images from the most destructive wildfire (Fourmile Fire) and largest wildfire (Hayman Fire) in Colorado history.

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