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Community pulls together — but needs answers

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By Doug Bell

Heartbreak and fear are among the emotions that are smoldering in the wake of the Lower North Fork Fire, which took three lives and 27 homes after a controlled burn exploded into a 4,100-acre maelstrom 6 miles south of Conifer.
Many questions also remain in the aftermath of the disaster, but one thing we know without doubt: Mountain area residents stand together in the face of danger and devastation, and their spirit was strongly in evidence throughout the ordeal — from a community feed for exhausted firefighters to the stalwart efforts of the Mountain Resource Center to last Friday night’s event honoring the firefighters, the volunteers and all who pitched in.
The Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce put together the effort on March 29 to feed hungry firefighters at Conifer High School, and several area businesses pitched in to make that happen: Aspen Catering (Mary Hellman-Wert and Craig Wert); Brooks Place Tavern (Steve and Janice Brooks); Cabin Creek Smokehouse BBQ (John and Christie Patrick); JJ Madwells (Tony Buccelli and Jan Worthem); the Conifer King Soopers; and Wing Wagon (Bill and Charlie Straight).

Questions that need answers — quickly
The fire’s profoundly disturbing aspects relate to the how and why, and the many other questions that have surfaced since high winds at the end of a dry and very warm March sent the smoldering embers from a controlled burn into tinder-dry areas nearby:
• Why did the Colorado State Forest Service go ahead with a controlled burn in those conditions? The voluminous paperwork generated for the controlled burn contains the following question: “Has the area experienced unusual drought conditions?” How could the warmest and driest March in memory not have been a red flag?
• Why did up to four hours elapse between the first 911 calls from nearby residents reporting an obviously dangerous fire and the reverse-911 calls urging an evacuation?
• What exactly caused the glitch in the reverse-911 system that sent calls to homes nowhere near the fire, then failed to place calls to some houses in the path of the flames?
Gov. John Hickenlooper has suspended prescribed burns on state lands until the state can investigate the Lower North Fork Fire and provide some answers. Jefferson County is working with the provider of the county’s reverse-911 system to iron out the problems that surfaced during the blaze.
But last week’s snowfall cannot cool the urgency of these investigations. The sun is out, the winds come and go, and the mountain area could be facing a long, hot summer with conditions that could spark more wildfires.
It’s imperative that state and county officials who live at lower altitudes find the answers to these questions very quickly and take the actions needed to keep mountain residents safe this summer. It’s up to us to keep the heat on them.

Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.