Lower North Fork Fire started by prescribed burn, Forest Service apologizes

lower north fork fire march 28 small.jpg
The Colorado Forest Service is now admitting that the Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer, which appears to have led to at least two casualties (one woman is still missing), was started by a prescribed burn that got out of control.

Meanwhile, Governor John Hickenlooper has suspended such burns until after an independent review is completed.

Below, see two releases. The first, as tweeted by 9News' Jeremy Jojola, offers a statement from the Colorado State Forest Service's deputy chief forester, Joe Duda, who's scheduled to participate in a 4 p.m. press conference. In it, he describes how a burn started on Monday, March 19, was whipped to life by high winds four days later, leading to the scorching of nearly 4,000 acres, the loss of at least 27 structures and, presumably, the deaths of Samuel and Linda Lucas.

That's followed by an item outlining Hickenlooper's suspension of prescribed burns and the independent-review plan.

Colorado State Forest Service release:

Last Monday (3/19), Colorado State Forest Service initiated a controlled burn on Denver Water Board property. The 50-acre prescribed burn was part of ongoing fuels management activities in the Lower North Fork area as part of a service agreement with Denver Water. On Monday, March 19, crews completed a containment line around the fire area. The actual prescribed fire was carried out and completed on Thursday, with mop-up operations beginning on Friday.

On Monday afternoon (3/26), the fourth day after the burn, a patrol crew reported windy conditions, but no smoke or fire activity along the fire perimeter as they circled the burn area several times. The crew reported a sudden, significant increase in wind and then reported seeing blowing embers carried across the containment line, over a road, and into unburned fuels. The crew immediately requested additional resources and began aggressively fighting the fire.

One of the primary roles of the Colorado State Forest Service is to help keep forests healthy and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires through fuel reduction. Prescribed fires are a well established tool in this effort, with many measures in place to make this tool as safe as possible. This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry: despite the best efforts of the Colorado State Forest Service to prevent this very kind of tragic wildfire, we now join Colorado in hoping for the safety of those fighting a large fire, and mourning the loss of life and property.

As the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office further investigates the cause of the current wildfire, Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado State Forest Service have also asked for an independent panel to conduct a review of the prescribed burn. Work is underway to assemble that independent panel and members will be identified in the near future. In the meantime, the Governor has suspended the use of prescribed burns by state agencies on state land until the review is complete.

Conducting a prescribed burn involves a considerable amount of planning, research and oversight by fire professionals who carefully consider current and future weather forecasts, fuel conditions, and other factors before initiating a burn.

On preliminary review CSFS officials say fire crews followed all procedures and safety protocols in conducting the prescribed burn.

We want to express our deepest sympathy to those who have lost loved ones and those who have lost property, and we hope for the safety of crews as they continue to fight the fire.

Governor's office release:

Gov. Hickenlooper, CSU will launch independent review, while governor suspends use of prescribed fires by state agencies

DENVER ­-- Wednesday, March 28, 2012 -- Gov. John Hickenlooper joined Colorado State University, which oversees the Colorado State Forest Service, today to call for an independent review into the circumstances that led to the Lower North Fork Fire.

"The loss of life and property this week is devastating and this fire is far from being contained. That's why our top priority remains working to control the blaze," Hickenlooper said. "We have made every resource available to firefighters and continue to coordinate the response with local and federal authorities.

"Our state's firefighters are doing very challenging work, often in the face of severe conditions and at great risk to their own safety. A complete and independent review into the cause will take place. There will be plenty of time to review what happened. Until then, we urge everyone to support the firefighting efforts and keep those directly affected by the fire in your thoughts and prayers."

Work is underway to assemble the independent review team and members will be identified in the near future.

The governor today also suspended the use of prescribed burns by state agencies on state lands -- including state parks, refuges, State Land Board lands and any agency that manages lands -- or under contract on non-state lands, such as by the Colorado State Forest Service. The suspension will be effective until a review of the protocols and procedures of prescribed burning is complete.

"We will conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of conditions across the state, as well as the protocols that have been utilized during the prescribed burns," Hickenlooper said. "We encourage any other land manager who uses prescribed fires as a tool to mitigate fire danger to review their procedures and protocols and carefully evaluate weather and landscape conditions."

While this suspension applies only to state agencies and state lands, other non-state land agencies, such as county lands, federal lands and private lands, should examine their own procedures and consider appropriate steps.

This suspension does not involve campfires or other fire use on state lands. However, state officials will continue to review and monitor conditions (weather, forest conditions, moisture content of vegetation, etc.) to determine if a broader statewide suspension or ban of fire use is warranted.

"Through this suspension, we intend to make sure that we have the procedures and protocols in place so that prescribed fire conditions and management requirements are understood and strictly followed," Hickenlooper said.

Finally, the governor today authorized the use of two more UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters flown by the Colorado Army National Guard to help battle the Lower North Fork Fire. Each helicopter is equipped with a 500-gallon bucket to drop water on the fire. Two other UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters began flying over the fire on Tuesday.

Hickenlooper will return to Colorado tonight after ending a four-day trade mission to Mexico. He has remained in constant contact this week with senior staff in the Governor's Office to help coordinate response to the fire.

Note: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the U.S. Forest Service had been responsible for the prescribed burn in question. We apologize for the error.

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More from our News archive: "Lower North Fork Fire photos, videos: Crew of 32 searching for missing woman."

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