By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper suspended prescribed burns used to mitigate fire danger on Wednesday after a controlled blaze apparently ignited a wildfire west of Denver that killed an elderly couple and destroyed some two dozen homes.
"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 in a statement.
Although the origins of the so-called Lower North Fork Fire are officially under investigation, the Colorado State Forest Service has said that a controlled burn it conducted was the likely source of the fire.
Deputy Colorado State Forester Joseph Duda called the tragedy heartbreaking given the loss of life and property.
"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," he said.
Duda said state forestry crews were conducting a controlled burn to thin out potential fuels on land owned by the Denver Water Board last week, and workers were surveying its perimeter on Monday when the fire erupted.
"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," he said. "The crew immediately requested additional resources and began aggressively fighting the fire."
The fire quickly spread, destroying 27 homes and forcing the evacuation of some 900 residences with another 6,500 on standby to evacuate should shifting winds drive the flames in their direction.
The bodies of an elderly couple who perished in the fire were later discovered by crews near their home, and a woman who resided in the area remains unaccounted for.
Hickenlooper said he would appoint a panel to "conduct a thorough and comprehensive review" of controlled burns.
Although the order applies just to burns on state land, the governor urged land managers of local and federal lands within the state to likewise review their prescribed burn procedures.
Fire officials on Wednesday reported significant progress in fighting the stubborn blaze which is burning through tinder-dry ponderosa pine trees and dried grasses in rugged terrain in the foothills 20 miles west of Denver.
"We have had a good day today and have established a perimeter," Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, said at an afternoon briefing.
Kelley said calmer winds that grounded aerial support earlier in the week had subsided, allowing tankers and helicopters to drop fire retardant and water ahead of the flames throughout the day.
The blaze, which has blackened 4,140 acres, is now 15 percent contained, she said, adding that officials scaled down the size of the fire and the number of destroyed structures after detailed mapping provided more accurate data.
Meanwhile, an urban search and rescue team consisting of 32 people and six canines were searching for the missing woman, Kelley said. Crews were also digging through the rubble of the woman's burned-out house to see if her remains were there.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)