911 calls show chaos during Colo. wildfire

Photo provided by Kris Garrett shows plume of smoke rising skyward over top of wildfire burning out of control near Conifer, Colo. Monday, March 26, 2012. High winds fanned the fire and kept air craft from being used to knock the fire down.
AP Photo/Kris Garrett

(CBS/AP) DENVER - Calls from confused and worried residents poured into Colorado sheriff's dispatchers for hours last week as a wildfire spread rapidly toward dozens of homes, with one caller expressing disbelief when told that the wind-fueled blaze was a "controlled burn."

That caller, Sam Lucas, and his wife were later found dead in their burned home — one of more than two dozen damaged or destroyed by the fire after it erupted March 26 south of Denver. Authorities believe they also found the remains of another woman, Ann Appel, in her burned house.

"We got 79-mile-an-hour winds out there and they got a controlled burn?" Lucas said on the 911 call, which was released Tuesday by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department along with some 130 other calls made in response to the fire.

"Yeah," the dispatcher replied, saying the Colorado State Forest Service was on the scene.

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The recordings released by sheriff's officials indicate other residents also were told the fire they saw that afternoon was a controlled burn and they had nothing to worry about.

The blaze blackened 6 square miles and was blamed on a prescribed burn conducted four days earlier that reignited amid high winds. It was not fully contained until Monday, a full week after it burned out of control.

The region of pines and grassland is dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. The fire destroyed at least 16 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 900.

As the fire spread, the calls to the sheriff's dispatch last week grew more frequent and panicked when both residents and dispatchers realized they were facing a dangerous wildfire that wasn't fully contained. Meanwhile, evacuation orders were sent in error to homes that weren't in the fire's path.

The first wave of automated calls ordering residents to evacuate was sent at 5:05 p.m., but it went to the wrong list of phone numbers, sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said Tuesday.

"It was way too large geographically," Techmeyer said, adding that he had no other details. "That was a user error on our end."

"It went out wrong," Techmeyer said Tuesday. "That was a user error on our end."

That call was halted, and a new round of calls was started at 5:23 p.m., he said.

Sheriff's officials have said Lucas and his wife, Linda, got a call, but it wasn't immediately clear when. Officials first said Appel also got a call but later backed off, saying they werent' sure.

FirstCall Network Inc., which provides the county's automated phone call system, said the first round of calls went to anyone who had signed up for the service on a county website, whether or not they lived in the evacuation area.

FirstCall logged slightly different times for the erroneous call — 4:50 p.m. — and for the start of the second round of calls, 5:16 p.m.

FirstCall's president, Matthew Teague, said the corrected calls went to 1,089 phone numbers in six waves, the last one starting at 9:14 p.m.

Teague said 12 busy signals were detected and 32 calls weren't answered. Another 90 calls went to numbers that had been disconnected or were not set up to receive voice calls. In each case, the system made three attempts to call those numbers, he said.

Intermountain Rural Electric Association, which provides power to the area, cut off the electricity at about 8 p.m., spokesman Mike Kopp said.

That could have rendered some phones inoperable, but residents with cell phones still could get the evacuation order, Techmeyer said.