Report: More fuel than expected in Colorado fire

April 16, 2012 - 7:05 PM

DENVER (AP) — Firefighters encountered some problems with a prescribed burn blamed for triggering a deadly Colorado wildfire, but there was little they could have done differently to prevent the disaster that followed, a veteran forest manager said Monday.

William Bass, who led a team of specialists in examining the March 22 controlled burn, said the firefighters developed a good plan for the prescribed burn and executed it well.

"It was a good burn," Bass said at a briefing before the team's report was made public.

The Colorado State Forest Service conducted the prescribed burn in the foothills 25 miles southwest of Denver. Four days later, a fast-moving wildfire tore through a forested subdivision with spacious lots and narrow gravel roads. Three people were found dead at their homes.

The fire blackened 6 square miles, damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes, and displaced hundreds of people.

Gov. John Hickenlooper asked Bass, supervisor of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, to lead the study of the prescribed burn. Bass' group did not examine the wildfire itself.

Bass, a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service with extensive fire-related experience, said firefighters departed from their plan on one point by patrolling the perimeter of the prescribed burn for only two consecutive days after it was ignited. They decided against going back as planned on the third day because they saw little risk, Bass said.

The wildfire erupted on the fourth day when 55-mph gusts picked up embers and blew them across the 200-foot buffer zone that firefighters had established and ignited grass on the other side.

"It was like glowing fleas," Bass said, quoting firefighters on the scene.

Asked if a patrol on the third day might have prevented the disaster, Bass said no.

He said the wildfire shows that the 200-foot buffer — which he called standard practice — isn't enough for winds as extreme as the gusts that raked the controlled burn the day of the wildfire.

Bass said the weather forecast on the day of the prescribed burn included no sign of trouble. But he added that during unpredictable spring weather in the mountains, it's difficult to forecast further out than 2½ or three days.

Bass noted at least two unusual events on the day the wildfire started.

One was the sudden and abrupt change in weather, with wind and heat increasing and humidity dropping. Meteorologists have determined the atmospheric conditions that caused the change were similar to conditions seen at the Storm King wildfire that killed 14 firefighters in western Colorado in 1994.

The other was burned-out wood — he called it charcoal — reigniting.

Although authorities have said they believe the prescribed burn ignited the wildfire, a separate investigation is looking into the precise cause. The coroner's office is still working to determine the cause of the deaths.

Authorities also are looking into problems with an automated phone call system that sent a recorded message to about 1,000 numbers telling people in the fire's path to evacuate. Some people in the evacuation area did not get a call.

Hickenlooper said Monday he has initiated three other reviews. One will look at how the state can have a single point of coordination for its firefighting agencies. The State Forest Service is part of Colorado State University and currently reports to academic officials, not state emergency officials.

Another will examine whether the state's rules for prescribed burns sufficiently protect people and property. He said a ban on prescribed burns on state lands will stay in place until that review is done.

Hickenlooper has also asked Colorado's congressional delegation to request a detailed study of the wildfire, similar to studies done on other major fires in the state.

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