Calls show residents panicked over Colo. wildfire

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The dispatcher took Appel’s number and address and said, “We’ll get someone out there to make sure she got out, OK?”

Searchers found human remains in Appel’s burned-out home on Saturday.

“The information at the time was we had a controlled burn and fire agencies were on scene,” said Jefferson County sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer. “In law enforcement, you want to minimize radio traffic. There would be no reason to air out something that’s already common knowledge.”

He said the dispatchers weren’t giving interviews about what happened.

The fire appears to have been sparked by a controlled burn set four days earlier by the Colorado State Forest Service, which says embers escaped from the burn sometime on the afternoon of March 26. A review of what happened has been ordered by the governor.

A National Weather Service forecast reviewed by firefighters on March 21 showed no significant winds over the coming week, KMGH-TV in Denver reported Wednesday. The burn was set on March 22, and on the following day an updated forecast showed that wind gusts up to 55 mph were expected at higher elevations.

The first wave of automated calls ordering residents to evacuate was sent at 5:05 p.m., but they went to the wrong list of phone numbers, Mr. Techmeyer said.

“It was way too large geographically,” he said, adding that he had no other details. “That was a user error on our end.”

That call was halted, and a new round of calls was started at 5:23 p.m., he said.

The 911 recordings show that that initial bad round of notifications caused even more confusion in the dispatch center.

Calls from people who wrongly got evacuation notices are mixed with more residents calling to report smoke and fire nearby. Dispatchers appear to become increasingly overwhelmed while fielding so many types of calls back-to-back.

Simultaneously, residents who were under mandatory evacuation called dispatchers to find out if they had to leave their homes. Some of those people do not indicate they received evacuation notices before calling 911 themselves.

A caller named Neal Biller on Sunburst Drive told a dispatcher he didn’t get an evacuation call but a neighbor did. The dispatcher said he didn’t need to evacuate if he didn’t get a call, but Mr. Biller asked her to look up his address.

A few seconds later the dispatcher said, “OK, yeah, it looks like on Sunburst you are to evacuate, so yes, do evacuate.”

“Wow. Really?” Mr. Biller said.

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