Search suspended for Colo. woman missing in fire

March 31, 2012 - 7:17 PM
Wildfires Colorado

The ruins of a horse trailer destroyed by a wildfire is pictured near Conifer, Colo., on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. Two people died in the wildfire that started Monday afternoon. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

CONIFER, Colo. (AP) — The search for a Colorado woman missing in a wildfire has been suspended after rescuers found human remains in her burned home.

Jefferson County authorities say they don't know yet whether the remains found Saturday are those of Ann Appel, reported missing since Monday.

If the remains belong to Appel, she would become the third fatality in a wildfire that has scorched about 6 square miles southwest of Denver.

An elderly couple found dead in one of the more than two dozen homes damaged or destroyed by the fire were buried Friday.

Residents of about 180 homes remain evacuated.

Firefighters have contained more than 90 percent of the wildfire, which was apparently sparked by a state controlled burn that sprang to life Monday in strong winds.

Jefferson County has tightened its fire restrictions to temporarily ban anything producing an open flame in unincorporated parts of the county, including federal land.

On Saturday morning, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office used an automated call system to warn residents of about 500 homes that gusty winds and dry conditions mean they could be asked to evacuate at a moment's notice.

On Monday, sheriff's officials alerted people to evacuate via the call system, but authorities have said about 12 percent of the people they intended to notify didn't get a warning. Sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said some people likely hung up after hearing a pause that precedes the automated message, or their phone lines may have been busy.

He said that can happen in any emergency, but authorities were most concerned that there wasn't any attempt to reach an unknown number of additional people registered to get the telephone alerts.

"We want to get to the bottom of this as much as our citizens do," Techmeyer said Friday.

On Friday, the Colorado State Forest Service released its plan for the controlled burn, showing that planners acknowledged there was a potential for fires to escape and cause a "significant threat" to nearby homes.

However, officials thought it was more likely they'd be able to put out any fire before it got that far, partly because of crews and water on site. Officials who wrote the plan insisted that the forest thinning would help protect those homes from a potential wildfire in the future.

The plan dates from 2006 and covers a series of burns being done in the area for Denver Water.

Under the plan, nearby residents were supposed to get warning letters. The state Forest Service has refused to say if that happened, citing an independent review into the burn. Two residents who lost their homes have said they didn't get the letters.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has suspended prescribed burns on state land, and the U.S. Forest Service has suspended six planned burns in Colorado until the weather improves. Several Colorado counties have enacted fire restrictions.

This March has been unusually dry, but a cold front promised to bring relief late Sunday, National Weather Service meteorologist Lisa Kriederman said.