Report reveals Colo. Forest Service underestimated fire danger

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. -- Colorado Forest Service crews told Jefferson County Sheriff’s investigators they did everything they could to make sure the prescribed burn that led to the Lower North Fork wildfire was cold and out.

But a FOX31 Denver review of the investigative report shows that is not the case.

State Forest Service crews underestimated the potential for danger and then under-reacted once spot fires started appearing.

By the time their engine arrived to help, the fire was out of control and Forest Service crews pulled back for their own safety.

Cell phone video taken by one of the crew members inside the burn area, released for the first time today, shows winds gusting and small fires flaring as the smoke grows heavier.

The Forest Service describes areas within the prescribed burn that were smoldering for days.

But the Forest Service left the fire unattended for most of the weekend. And when a three man crew returned to the site Monday, the area was still smoldering with small fires flaring.

They were packing to leave anyway, even though there was a red flag fire warning.

That’s when they noticed several small fires breaking out in and outside of the prescribed burn boundaries.

They told investigators they used their feet and hand tools to put out the fires, and quickly ran out of the limited water that they had.

Even though the fires kept popping up, they did not call for help for more than a half hour.  And then they only asked for one Forest Service engine to be sent up, and it would take it nearly two hours to arrive.

In the meantime, Jefferson County residents and sheriff’s deputies were becoming alarmed about the growing amount of smoke.

A deputy asked dispatch to ask the Forest Service if the fire was contained.

The report says, “She replied ‘technically not.’”  And the deputy says, “I thought that was a weird response.”

As local fire chiefs began to arrive near the scene, the Forest Service decided they could not handle the fire and turned control over to Jefferson County.

That’s when additional resources were called out.

But by then the fire had clearly escaped the prescribed burn area and was making a run towards a residential area along Kuehster Road.

More than two dozen homes were burned, three people were killed and 4,000 acres scorched by the Lower North Fork Fire.