- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

DENVER (AP) — Sam Lucas was among the first to begin calling 911 about a wildfire burning near his home on the outskirts of Denver.

But the dispatcher, already having answered a handful of calls about the fire, cut Lucas off to tell him that it was a controlled burn and that the forest service was on the scene.

“We got 79-mile-an-hour winds out there, and they got a controlled burn?” Lucas said on the 911 call, one of 130 calls over a total of 10 hours that were released Tuesday.

When the dispatcher says yes, he replies: “Oh, wonderful. Thank you.”

He and his wife later were found dead at their burned out home.

The 911 calls from March 26 raised further questions about emergency officials’ response to last week’s fast-growing fire, which authorities believe killed three people, damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes and burned six square miles in the mountains southwest of Denver.

Residents began calling to express concern about the fire and high winds around 2 p.m., and at first dispatchers assured them the heavy smoke and flames weren’t a threat. Later they acknowledged that there was some trouble with a prescribed burn but told callers that firefighters were at the scene.

Jefferson County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said sheriff’s officials were aware the controlled burn had broken its perimeter that afternoon, but she said the agency didn’t know the fire had gotten out of control until a local fire department sent a notification at 5 p.m. She said that’s when a firefighter first made a suggestion for evacuations.

“We have to listen to what groups in the field are telling us,” Ms. Kelley said of why evacuations weren’t called earlier. “If they’re saying there’s a controlled burn and the state forest service is on the scene, we don’t just create evacuations for a fire that has gone outside the perimeter.”

Residents in the mountains are particularly sensitive to smoke in the air, and it wasn’t unusual for dispatchers to receive calls about seeing smoke from the controlled burn, Ms. Kelley said. The dispatchers’ messages to callers changed as the situation changed, she said.

A neighbor has said Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda, 76, were packed and ready to go if they got orders to evacuate. Authorities say they eventually did get one, but it’s not clear when.

A friend concerned about the third person who apparently died in the fire also called to ask authorities to check on Ann Appel because she was getting chemotherapy and her husband was out of state. However, that call seems to have come after it was too late to help her.

“She’s a little sickly. We have no idea if anybody even knows she’s there,” the caller said. “We know the fire went through her property because we were able to get ahold of the neighbor.”

The caller said Appel — who didn’t get an evacuation notice — wasn’t answering her phone. Meanwhile, authorities say evacuation orders were sent in error to homes that weren’t in the fire’s path.

“She had her stuff to leave. The car had a flat tire,” the caller said.

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