- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CONIFER, Colo. — State forest officials had conducted a prescribed burn last week in the same area where a wind-driven wildfire has destroyed at least 15 homes and left one person dead, authorities said Tuesday.

Ryan Lockwood, a spokesman for the Colorado State Forest Service, said his agency conducted the prescribed burn on Thursday on land belonging to the Denver Water Board as part of an ongoing attempt to reduce fire danger. Such burns are usually done to thin out vegetation to reduce the chances of a major wildfire.

“This has been going on for the past year,” said Lockwood, who referred questions about the decision to other agency officials.

Jefferson County sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley had said earlier that the wildfire, which spread to nearly 5 square miles within a matter of hours on Monday, may have been a controlled burn from last week that sprang back to life because of strong wind gusts.

The fire is burning several miles and mountain ridges west of Denver’s tightly populated southwestern suburbs, which are not under threat. The area of pines and grassland is mountainous and sparsely populated, dotted with hamlets and the occasional expensive home. It is about 25 miles southwest of Denver at an altitude that ranges from 7,000 to 8,200 feet.

About 900 homes have been evacuated and more remained under threat. It has destroyed 15 to 25 houses, authorities said.

A body was found late Monday but investigators have yet to determine the cause of death. The victim wasn’t a firefighter or emergency responder, Kelley said.

Strong winds fanned the flames, preventing air crews from spraying retardant and keeping firefighters mostly on the defensive on Monday. With winds expected to be lighter Tuesday, firefighters said they were also planning for a possible air attack. A lead plane was scouting conditions for an air tanker to drop slurry.

“The wind will really tell the story today,” Kelley said.

Federal firefighting teams from Idaho, Nevada and Utah were being sent to Colorado to take over management of the fire from Jefferson County, said Roberta D’Amico, information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Video from KUSA-TV’s helicopter showed one home burned to its foundation with a flicker burning in the rubble. Another home appeared untouched, a car parked in the driveway, although land across the road was charred.

Temperatures lately have been reaching into the 70s during an especially dry March, raising the fire danger around Colorado. Up to a dozen smaller fires were reported from the northeast Colorado plains to the southern part of the state.

Colorado’s snowpack has melted quickly in recent weeks, exposing terrain that is drying out weeks ahead of normal, said Mage Skordahl, assistant snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver. Snowpack in the South Platte Basin, where the fire is located, has dropped from 89 percent of normal to 69 percent this month, Skordahl said. Statewide averages have dropped from 81 percent to 65 percent.

“Typically, March is an accumulation month for us. We receive 20 percent of our snowpack in this month,” Skordahl said. “But it’s been very, very dry.”

“Normally, we have a lot of snow this time of year. You’d just never think you’d have to evacuate for a fire in March,” said Kathy Wilkens, a 21-year-old resident who fled her home with her husband after a reverse 911 call on Monday night.

Evacuees took shelter at nearby Conifer High School, where cots were set up in the gymnasium and two classrooms became makeshift kennels for dogs and cats. Outside the school, winding mountain roads were crowded with horse trailers as owners moved livestock to a fairgrounds.

County officials updated nervous residents early Tuesday, asking anxious homeowners to leave behind their addresses so they could be called with the status of their homes. They were told they wouldn’t be allowed to return home yet.

“We will not be able to allow any citizens back into that area (until) at least the end of the day — and that’s not a promise,” said Daniel Hatlestad, spokesman for the Jefferson County Incident Management Team.

He said rescuers brought out an unknown number of people who were trying to flee by car but were forced to pull over because of low visibility. Hatlestad said winds neared 90 mph Monday evening, so even cars couldn’t outrace the smoke.

“We were pushing people and dogs and cats into fire trucks,” he said.

Evacuees munched on pizza and fried chicken, with volunteers leading children in games of basketball in the school gym. Rose Applegate said she saw smoke on Monday afternoon and expected to be evacuated.

“I could tell we were in the path,” Applegate said. “We gathered up a few things and came here.”

Associated Press writers Rema Rahman in Littleton, Colo., Steven K. Paulson in Denver and Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this story.

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