CONIFER, Colo — A huge wildfire burning in the Front Range Foothills west of Denver Monday left one dead and prompted hundreds of evacuations, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said Monday night.
The sheriff’s office confirmed one death from the fire late Monday night but did not release details other than to say it was in the fire zone.
The Lower North Fork Fire started as a 5-acre fire but was estimated at more than 3,000 acres as of 9 p.m.
“All residents south of Highway 285 in the area of the fire are asked to be prepared to evacuate,” the sheriff’s office said just before 9 p.m.
“Homes have been lost in the Kuester Road area but there is no confirmation on the number of structures affected,” said Jacki Kelley, Jefferson County PIO.
Smoke and ash from the fire was falling in the Denver metro area, raising health concerns.
The first evacuations were ordered for residents in the Pleasant Park area, near Conifer, when the fire was less than 100 acres.
“We’re looking at the direction the fire is moving, which is northeast and we are making additional evacuations because of that,” Kelley said earlier in the evening.
She said more than 900 automated phone calls were sent out to residents on Monday, ordering them to evacuate.
Subdivisions that were evacuated Monday included: Oehlman Park, Conifer Meadows N. of Foxton Road and Silver Ranch Estates.
The fire was burning toward the following subdivisions Monday night: Maxwell Hill, Samson, Kuehster and Critchell, according to the sheriff’s office.
Text alerts and automated phone messages went out to Jefferson County residents in the fire’s path, telling them to evacuate.
Conifer High School was set up as the first evacuation shelter and the Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross sent volunteers to the school. Late Monday night, the shelter had 90 evacuees and 65 dogs.
An additional evacuation center was set up at Chatfield High School, Kelley said.
A large and small animal evacuation point was set up at the Jeffco Fairgrounds. Anyone needing assistance with large animal evacuation should contact the sheriff’s office at 303-277-0211.
Late Monday night, the sheriff’s off reiterated, “Due to extreme fire conditions, entrance into affected areas to rescue animals is prohibited.”
“I was looking at maps and there’s not a lot between us and the fire,” said evacuee Erin Thatcher, who lives in Silver Ranch Estates, just off Pleasant Park Road. “We got everything, our pictures and cats — everything we could.”
The fire stated from a controlled burn conducted by the Colorado Forest Service last week that rekindled Monday afternoon in high winds, according to Kelley.
A wind gust of 69 mph was recorded at the automated weather station at Conifer High School at 2:11 p.m. Monday. Kelley said the fire was reported at 2 p.m.
The fire was crowning in trees and growing in size quickly by mid-afternoon, pushed by the high winds.
“I talked to a lady — she said she could tell it was crowning. She heard the trees popping,” said evacuee Margaret Long, Thatcher’s mother.
The fire moved so fast, firefighters focused on a defensive strategy to include structure protection as a primary objective, Kelley said.
Roads leading into the fire were blocked to all but emergency vehicles.
“The patrolman told me if I had (arrived) 10 minutes before that, obviously he hadn’t been there yet, I could have got in,” said evacuee Bill Von Vihl, who lives on South Ridge Road.
More than 100 firefighters from multiple agencies were on the fire lines Monday night with additional resources expected to arrive through the night, Kelley said.
A Type 1 Incident Management Team has been ordered. A Type 1 team has the most training and experience of any incident management team. There are 16 such teams in the United States.
The Red Cross was working with the Salvation Army to provide water and food for firefighters.
Tuesday’s fire behavior was forecast to be “erratic” with swift and shifting winds. Officials said they anticipate the fire will burn for an extended period of time.
A huge smoke plume from the fire could be seen along the Front Range from Northglenn to south of Castle Rock. The smoke was drifting across the south metro area, with smoke and ash reported by metro-area residents.
Smoke Health Advisory Issued
Wildfire Smoke Health Advisory for southern Jefferson, Douglas, western Arapahoe, and Western Elbert Counties. Moderate to locally heavy smoke from the Lower North Fork Fire in southern Jefferson County is likely to move to the northeast and east of the fire this evening and later tonight.
Smoke will continue to move into portions of the southern Denver metro area Monday night, including Highlands Ranch, the Chatfield Reservoir area, Roxborough Park, Littleton, Englewood, Centennial, Aurora, Parker, Castle Rock and other nearby areas.
Blowing dust across the Front Range region may cause coarse particulates to climb into the moderate range. Consequently, unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy indoor or outdoor exertion.
Firefighters from the North Fork and Elk Creek fire departments are fighting the fire. The U.S. Forest Service said it is sending additional personnel, according to the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office. A helicopter with a water bucket was also making drops on the fire.
The fire is burning near Platte River Road about 6 miles downstream from Foxton Road.
Foxton Road has been closed from Reynolds Ranch to Platte River Road to allow fire traffic only. Elk Creek fire units are staging at Reynolds Ranch.
Platte River Road is closed at Jefferson County Road 126.
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