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Fire Chief: CO emergency wildfire response system needs overhaul

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DENVER -- One lawmaker was shocked to hear about the state of Colorado's lack of ability to respond to a fast-moving, destructive wildfire.

The Lower North Fork Fire Commission heard testimony Wednesday about the fire in Jefferson County in March that killed three people and destroyed 23 homes.

"The Lower North Fork Fire was probably about as bad a nightmare as any fire chief is ever going to encounter," Elk Creek chief Bill McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin says that while he was asking for help, as the fire raged out of control, crews were being sent from as far away as California and Wyoming instead of his own backyard.

Some of those from closer locations didn't arrive until several hours after flames had already ripped through the community.

"We don't have a good system for getting a large number of fire resources to an incident," he said.

"We needed rapid action and we didn't get it and my friends died and my community is in shatters," resident Mary Ann Ellis said.

Crews responding to the Four Mile Fire in Boulder County two years ago ran into many of the same problems. Especially when it came to emergency notifications sent to homeowners. They also faced a lack of coordinated firefighting resources.

"We were all, including myself, spent mentally, physically and that kind of thing and then at that point you're expected to pick up and start the recovery," said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.

But frustrated homeowners say the commission hearings should focus on providing compensation.

The Lower North Fork Fire was started by state forestry crews during a prescribed burn.

"This thing is a consequence pure and simple," says Andy Hoover, whose home was destroyed in the fire. "The record is clear on that and all this beating around the bush is really inappropriate.

It has been five months since the fire and the victims could be years from seeing any compensation. There's still no guarantee they will get anything.

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