CONIFER, Colo. — Entering a fourth day fighting a deadly wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes west of Denver, authorities were hoping Thursday to contain more of the blaze that the state Forest Service itself started.
The 6-square-mile fire started after a controlled burn last week that was meant to thin dry vegetation and control future fire risk. Instead, the blaze went out of control Monday when wind gusts blew embers across a containment line and into unburned forest.
A search team used dogs Wednesday to look for a woman missing in the fire zone. Her home was among 27 destroyed or damaged in the blaze. The search resumed today.
The bodies of Sam Lamar Lucas, 77, and Linda M. Lucas, 76, were found this week at their destroyed home. Their cause of death was pending.
Neighbor Eddie Schneider said he's not sure the couple ever received an automated phone call telling them to leave. Schneider left his home after a firefighter knocked on his door.
Evacuees got a personal apology for the burn from the Colorado State Forest Service Wednesday.
"This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry," Deputy State Forester Joe Duda said.
All protocols were followed for last week's prescribed burn, but wind gusts on Monday caused the blaze to re-ignite, the Forest Service said.
Glenn Davis, who said his friends were forced from their homes by the fire, peppered Duda with questions at a news conference Wednesday and said he wants changes in how prescribed burns are conducted.
"People up here want accountability," Davis said. "Telling me, 'I'm sorry,' doesn't really make a difference."
Gov. John Hickenlooper has suspended the use of state prescribed burns. Hickenlooper said the ban on such fires on state lands, including state parks, would be in effect until a review of the wildfire is complete.
The ban doesn't affect land controlled by the federal government, which accounts for over a third of Colorado. However, Hickenlooper urged counties and federal agencies to also consider suspending such burns for now.
Hickenlooper said he doesn't blame some of the 900 evacuated homeowners for being angry.
"Their houses have been destroyed. Their lives have been changed forever. It's not their fault," Hickenlooper told KOA radio.
Some 400 firefighters from several states were building containment lines around the wildfire, which was 15 percent contained Wednesday.
National Guard helicopters were attacking the fire from the air. However, two heavy tanker planes that had been on scene were diverted to respond to fires in South Dakota, sheriff's officials said. A single-engine air tanker was still available to dump fire retardant.
Also Wednesday, some local sheriff's deputies started taking the owners of destroyed homes into the burn area to see what was left of their homes. On a tour for reporters, thin white smoke rose from valleys. Charred appliances were all that remained of some homes.
A Forest Service manager who helps plan for prescribed burns, Jane Lopez, said the state usually performs them only in spring and fall. Prescribed burns are planned as far as three years in advance, she said, but they don't go forward unless weather conditions meet requirements. She said everything was done properly.
"You don't burn unless all the parameters are met," Lopez said. She didn't comment on the governor's planned burn order but said, "We're at the end of the prescribed burn season anyway."
Conifer resident Don Heiden, who was displaced by the fire, said he wasn't ready to blame the government.
"Accidents happen. If there was negligence, they'll figure it out," said Heiden, who was watching televised aerial shots to see if his home was still standing. "To me, it's more of an act of God."
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