Within 10 minutes, residents began calling the Jefferson County 911 system, worried about the smoke. Some were found dead in the aftermath.
One who called 911 was Ann Appel.
"It's blowing smoke right over my house," she said.
"Yeah, it's about 5 acres and growing, so they've got crews on the way," a dispatcher told her.
"OK. Thank you," Appel replied before hanging up.
Human remains believed to be Appel's were found days later.
"It's important to note that her call came in very early. That's why the response is what it is," sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said.
The Appel family said sheriff's officials told them Appel didn't receive an evacuation call because her property was listed at the wrong address in Morrison, where the family had never lived.
Some residents report never knowing about the controlled burn, despite policies mandating the public be informed well in advance of such burns.
"We've got 79 mph winds out here, and they've got a controlled burn?" asked an incredulous Sam Lucas in one 911 call.
The bodies of Lucas, 77, and his wife, Linda, 76, were later found at their destroyed home.
Firefighters asked for evacuations shortly before 5 p.m. The first wave of automated calls ordering residents to evacuate was sent at 5:05 p.m. but went to a wrong list of phone numbers, said sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer. "That was a user error on our end."
A new round of calls began at 5:23 p.m. But the first bad round of notifications exacerbated confusion in the dispatch center, which was overwhelmed with calls from people asking about evacuation notices and others reporting smoke and fire.
That exasperation came out in several frantic exchanges on 911.
"You can turn on your news if you want coverage of it," a dispatcher told one resident who called to find out if he was being evacuated.
One woman called to report smoke and haze.
"It wasn't a prescribed burn, was it?" she said.
"It was, but it's now not prescribed any further," the dispatcher said.
"If it's prescribed, it's way out of control," the caller said.
"Well I'm telling you that it was prescribed and it's no longer in control," the dispatcher said.
The confusion led to frantic escapes where in some areas day turned to night, embers flying like tracer bullets. Many roads in the area are winding, down to one lane, creating the potential for jams to safety and emphasizing the need to get out early in case of disaster. A sheriff's deputy trying to knock on doors got lost in the smoke, drove into a ditch, and called for help as flames overtook his car. He escaped unharmed.
"If they're saying there's a controlled burn and the state forest service is on the scene, we don't just create evacuations for a fire that has gone outside the perimeter," Kelley said later, emphasizing the downside of creating undue panic and the county's dependence, too, on reports from the scene.
Ultimately, residents of some 900 homes were evacuated amid rapidly changing weather conditions typical of Colorado's foothills and mountains, where wind speeds and temperatures can change drastically within a matter of minutes — and in this case pushed a fire quickly through narrow canyons and fuel-choked grassland now populated, despite its alpine setting, as an exurb of Denver some 25 miles away.
Andy Hoover may be typical of them.
That Monday, he told a 911 dispatcher he was watching his house burn.
"I think I'm safe," he said.
"Can you get out of the area, because we don't know if we have a second wave (of fire) coming in there," the dispatcher said.
"You know what, ma'am, I could try," Hoover said. "I'm not sure that's a smart idea."
Associated Press writers Dan Elliott, Rema Rahman and P. Solomon Banda contributed to this report.
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