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2:02 pm
Wed March 28, 2012

In Colorado, Chaotic Evacuation After Initial Blaze

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:55 am

A wildfire in the foothills southwest of Denver continues to burn out of control. It's destroyed dozens of homes and buildings, and with two people confirmed dead and another missing, it looks to be Colorado's deadliest wildfire in decades.

A day and a half after the fire started, the weather at the command post is so beautiful it's hard to imagine the nearby blaze is raging almost out of control. Mark Techmeyer of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department calls the Lower North Fork Wildfire a monster.

"You get a fire that ran like it did, Monday afternoon with wind gusts up to 80 miles an hour;it went from one acre to 3,000 in about an hour," Techmeyer says.

He says it exploded so fast that, evacuations Monday afternoon were chaotic.

"Like I say, when they were running for their lives, they literally were," he says. "We had firefighters going down the road grabbing people and their pets and throwing them in the firetrucks to get them out. It was that bad."

This has been one of Colorado's warmest and driest Marches on record; Techmeyer says the fire ate that fuel up like a hungry teenager hitting a full refrigerator.

Firefighters from all over the country have come to help keep the flames at bay. But hard-to-reach canyons and steep mountainsides have hampered efforts to contain the fire, forcing thousands from their homes.

At an evacuation shelter at West Jefferson Middle School in Aspen Park, Rich Lamb and Andrea Dikers, who live in nearby Conifer, are waiting to hear if their house was caught in the fire's path.

"You could see the flames, the trees three quarters of a mile away from our house, but luckily it was going the opposite direction," Lamb says.

"Two sheriffs came into our house, though, and they said, 'We're setting up here. We have the best vantage point of the fire, and you will be leaving now, won't you?' And so we were packing up, getting ready to say our prayers and hope for the best," Dikers says.

The couple has lived in that house, which they built themselves, for more than 20 years. But both seem in good spirits

"Yeah, well, what can you do, you know?" Lamb says. "You just got to go with the flow."

Steve Weaver is also going with the flow as he waits to hear if his house is OK. He says these beautiful wooded hills are worth the risk. "There's a price to pay for what we have," he says.

Many residents were upset to hear the fire may have been started by a controlled burn. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department says an ember from one of those burns may have been swept up in the 80 mph winds that hit the area.

Jane Lopez, who manages the controlled burn program for the Colorado State Forest Service, says burn crews met all safety standards. She said at this point, she can't speculate as to what started the fire. Lopez says those same burn crews also checked the burn piles daily — even on Monday, when the fire started.

Jefferson County sheriffs and other agencies are still investigating the cause of the fire, but in the meantime, Techmeyer says, fire crews will be working around the clock.

"We're hopeful that we'll be able to really make a dent in this thing today," he says.

That is unless the winds pick up, and spread the fire faster.

Copyright 2012 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Colorado, a wildfire in the foothills near Denver continues to burn out of control. Two people are confirmed dead. Another is missing. The fire has destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings. Hundreds of people have been evacuated. The possibility that the fire was started by a controlled burn has led the governor of Colorado to suspend controlled burns on state lands. Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus reports from Conifer.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: A day and a half after the fire started and the weather at the command post is so beautiful it's hard to imagine the nearby fire is raging almost out of control. Mark Techmeyer is with Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. He calls the Lower North Fork Fire a monster.

MARK TECHMEYER: You get a fire that ran like it did Monday afternoon with wind gusts up to 80 miles an hour - it went from one acre to 3,000 in about an hour.

MARKUS: It exploded so fast that Techmeyer say evacuations Monday afternoon were chaotic.

TECHMEYER: So like I say, when they were running for their lives, they literally were. We had firefighters going down the road grabbing people and their pets and throwing them in the fire trucks to get them out. It was that bad.

MARKUS: This has been one of Colorado's warmest and driest Marches on record and Techmeyer says the fire ate that fuel like a hungry teenager hitting a full refrigerator.

Hard to reach canyons and steep mountainsides have hampered efforts to contain the fire, forcing thousands from their homes. At an evacuation shelter at West Jefferson Middle School in Aspen Park, Rich Lamb and Andrea Dikers, who live in Conifer, are waiting to hear if their house was caught in the fire's path.

RICH LAMB: You could see the flames, the trees three-quarters of a mile away from our house, but luckily it was going the opposite direction.

ANDREA DIKERS: Two sheriffs came into our house though and they said, we're setting up here. We have the best vantage point of the fire, and you will be leaving now, won't you? And so we were packing up, getting ready to say our prayers and hope for the best.

MARKUS: The couple has lived in that house, which they built, for more than 20 years. But both seem in good spirits.

LAMB: Yeah, well, what can you do, you know. You just got to go with the flow and get out.

MARKUS: Also going with the flow is Steve Weaver. He's waiting to hear if his house is OK. He says these beautiful wooded hills are worth the risk.

STEVE WEAVER: Part of the perils of living up here, so there's a price to pay for, you know, what we have, so...

MARKUS: Though many residents were upset to hear that the fire may have been started by a controlled burn. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department says an ember from one of those burns may have been swept up in the 80-mile-per-hour winds that hit the area.

Jane Lopez manages the controlled burn program for the Colorado State Forest Service. She says burn crews met all safety standards.

JANE LOPEZ: I just can't speculate at this point what the cause of the fire is.

MARKUS: And Lopez says those crews also checked the burn piles daily - even on Monday, when the fire started.

Jefferson County sheriffs and other agencies are still investigating. In the meantime, sheriff spokesman Techmeyer says fire crews will work around the clock.

TECHMEYER: We're hopeful that we'll be able to really make a dent in this thing today.

MARKUS: That is unless the winds pick up and spread the fire faster.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Conifer, Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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