JEFFERSON COUNTY — Deputy state forester Joe Duda this afternoon said the Lower North Fork Fire sparked from a 50-acre prescribed burn that firefighters had been managing since Thurday and apologized to the people who had lost their homes and to the family of the two people who lost their lives.

"This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry," Duda said. "Despite the best efforts of the Colorado State Forest Service to prevent this very kind of tragic wildfire, we now join Colorado in hoping for the safety of those fighting a large fire, and mourning the loss of life and property."

During a 4 p.m. briefing in Conifer, Duda said the controlled burn on Denver Water Board property reignited in heavy winds Monday that fanned embers and blew them into an unburned area outside a containment line established on March. 19.

This aerial photo shows a home  that looks to be spared in the Lower North Fork Wildfire near Denver, on Tuesday, March 27, 2012.
This aerial photo shows a home that looks to be spared in the Lower North Fork Wildfire near Denver, on Tuesday, March 27, 2012. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Duda said a patrol crew circled the burn area several times on Monday but saw no smoke or fire along the perimeter. But then the wind increased significantly and the crew reported "seeing blowing embers carried across the containment line, over a road and into unburned fuels. The crew immediately requested additional resources and began aggressively fighting the fire."

Within hours, the fire was out of control.

In updated numbers released this afternoon, the charred area is estimated at 4,140 acres and 27 buildings have been burned. Two civilians died in the fire and a third is missing. Tankers dumped 4,100 gallons of retardant on Wednesday.

Search teams continued to hunt for the missing woman but Jefferson County Sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said crews are beginning to dig through the rubble of the woman's home.

Mary Ann Ellis' home was spared by the fire but she finds little comfort in the apology offered by the Colorado Stare Forest Service.

"It was obvious. A 2-year-old would have know not to start that fire," Ellis said. "We watched our friends lose everything they worked their whole lives for."

"Someone made the wrong decision," Ellis said.

Ellis, one of a handful of residents who attended the news conference, was shaking a she described the loss of her friends.

"We ran for our lives and they just didn't make it," Ellis said.

Ellis said Sam and Linda Lucas had their truck loaded and ready to go when the fire cloud came down on them.

"If you knew these people you know how special they were," Ellis said. "It was murder."

During the news conference, resident Glenn Davis demanded accountability.

Davis, lives on Conifer Mountain. he said his home was not evacuated but many of his friends have been impacted.

The early-spring fire, which has burned through 4,500 acres, has blackened trees and leveled homes.
The early-spring fire, which has burned through 4,500 acres, has blackened trees and leveled homes. (Jordan Steffen/The Denver Post)

"I love Conifer and now it's scarred." Davis said. "I want to ask you if you'd have done this by your house ... in a dry month, when there's no rain in the forecast for 3 weeks?"

"We are all upset. We're very angry," he said.

Davis said he doesn't want an apology, he wants the system to change in the future. He said residents should've been notified last Thursday about the controlled burn.

Controlled burns are routinely used to help keep forest healthy and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires through fuel reduction.

Today, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a state-wide ban on the use of prescribed burns by state agencies on state lands, including state parks, refuges, State Land Board land, and called for an independent review of the circumstances that led to the Lower North Fork Fire.

(Jefferson County Sheriff's Office)

The ban will remain in place until the review is complete. An independent review team is being assembled.

"The loss of life and property this week is devastating and this fire is far from being contained. That's why our top priority remains working to control the blaze," Hickenlooper said in a statement. "We have made every resource available to firefighters and continue to coordinate the response with local and federal authorities.

According to Duda, a preliminary review of the fire by state forest service officials suggests fire crews fired proper procedures. The fire is being investigated by Jefferson County arson investigators.


View Lower North Fork Wildfire in a larger map

Some fire zone residents briefed this afternoon by Jefferson County fire managers left the 1 p.m. meeting feeling frustrated by the slow release of information about whether their homes are still standing.

"All we want is answers," said Deon Moore, who lives off of Pleasant Park Road. "Right now, people are biting their nails.

Authorities did not speak to the media after the 15-minute meeting. But residents said they were given a phone number to call to find out if their homes were damaged by the blaze. That number is 303-272-4917.

They were also shown a map of the burn area.

"Our house is still standing so that's good," said Jennifer Behm. "It's hard, but I understand" she said of the lack of information.

This morning, a team of 32 search and rescue experts and six scent dogs from the Urban Search and Rescue Crew began looking for a woman who was reported missing in the Lower North Fork Fire.

The missing woman's husband, who was not home at the time the fire broke out, alerted authorities on Monday.

Their home is in an evacuation area, but investigators don't know whether she attempted to get out, or decided to stay and ride it out, Kelley said. The house was destroyed in the fire.

An airplane took infrared images overnight that will help firefighters define a better map and aget a more accurate estimate on fire acreage, Kelley said.

The Type One Incident Management Team is here in Colorado, and local officials handed over top command of the federal team.

About 400 firefighters are in the area, several of whom came from states including South Dakota, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Crews will rotate fighting the fire throughout the day.

Overnight, about 160 firefighters worked to protect structures inside the fire's perimeter. Officials this morning said 28 structures have been destroyed, but that number was changed to 27 because one of the recorded addresses was not accurate.

The fire grew very little overnight, but still remains very dangerous as heavy fuels continue to burn. Today crews hope to continue protecting structures as well as begin containing the fire, Kelley said.

There is currently no containment.

This morning six air support units, including two heavy tankers and four helicopters, were expected to aid firefighters by laying down both water and retardant, Kelley said.

The tankers will drop the retardant in front of the fire to slow the blaze; two of the helicopters will drop water directly on the fire.

"We'll hope the winds stay calm so we can keep them up and flying," Kelley said.

Officials have met with about half of the homeowners whose homes were affected by the blaze. At the moment, investigators have no reason believe the fire was stared by anything other than a controlled burn from last week.

Authorities are still investigating the deaths of Sam Lucas, 77, and his wife Linda, 76. The two were found at their home.

About 15 people slept at the Red Cross shelter last night, which was moved from Conifer High School to the nearby West Jefferson Middle School.

Anyone concerned about a relative in the area can call the Red Cross at 303-607-4775.

Early this morning firefighters gathered at Conifer High School and several have been deploying to the fire zone throughout the morning. One of the school's parking lots was filled with equipment where supplies were loaded before leaving.

Skies over the area remain hazy but no large plumes of smoke are visible.

Residents "are not seeing that large one of smoke which is leading people to ask why can't I go home," Kelley said. "It's not over."

Kieran Nicholson: 303-954-1822 or knicholson@denverpost.com