DENVER– The House advanced a bill on Tuesday that would establish a commission to evaluate damage claims against the state by victims of the Lower North Fork Wildfire. The 6-member commission would also investigate the delayed emergency responses to a controlled burn that ignited a massive fire on March 26 that killed three people, destroyed 27 homes and scorched more than 1,400 acres south of Conifer.
Victims can sue the state for damages, but state law currently caps that amount at $600,000. Proponents of House Bill 1352, sponsored by Republican Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Bob Gardner and Sen. Bill Cadman, both of Colorado Springs, said the measure would pave a way for the victims to recover more money for damages.
Victims of the wildfire would be allowed to file claims for damages that were not compensated by their insurance coverage, but exempts non-economic damages and attorney fees.
Democrat detractors argued that the compensation would be subject to the approval of the Joint Budget Committee – and there would either be no money appropriated or it would be siphoned from public education funding.
“The state of Colorado bears responsibility for what happened to these people,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen) whose House district encompasses the community devastated by the fire. “You can’t replace your home, you can’t replace your belongings and you certainly can’t replace a loved one” who died in the fire.
Gerou said that despite four separate investigations, none incorporated interviews with victims of the fire, and she hopes this bill will give them the opportunity to be heard and granted compensation.
Gardner said that the fire was caused by a controlled burn conducted by the state of Colorado, and the question remains what the government will do to compensate the victims.
“Under the Colorado government immunity act, even though it’s clear the state was negligent… the state has not waived immunity (and) has not accepted liability,” said Gardner. Even if the state did so, he said, “The limit of the state’s liability is all of $600,000 for all of these victims.”
Gardner recalled a press conference with Gov. John Hickenlooper about the tragedy and how the state would deal with lawsuits. He said the governor’s comments had more to do with reorganizing governmental agencies than responding to the victims of the wildfire.
“To my surprise,” Gardner said, “the response was very indefinite… and made reference to government immunity. I think to those who were victims of the wildfire, the core of that answer was the state is immune – maybe the legislature could do something, but we’re not liable.”
The bill generated more than four hours of emotional testimony by victims during its hearing Monday before the House Judiciary Committee. Although the state Attorney General’s office testified against the bill, the committee passed the measure, 8 to 3, with Democrat Reps. Daniel Kagan of Greenwood Village and Pete Lee of Colorado Springs joining their Republican peers in support of the measure.
But, Kagan objected to the bill on the second reading Tuesday on the House floor.
Kagan said the bill offers victims a tough choice of either choosing to seek restitution through the courts which could take at least two years or though a commission that he said is vulnerable to political persuasion.
Of the commission, Kagan said, “Some are trying to embarrass the (Hickenlooper) administration, some are trying to defend the administration.”
Gardner said that the bill and its commission are not intended to embarrass the governor or his administration.
“I deplore that charge and implication. It is unacceptable… Nothing could be further from the truth,” declared Gardner.
The commission would be comprised of the chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, one minority member of each of these committees, the executive director of the state Department of Public Safety and the state Treasurer.
The bill passed second reading in the House on a voice vote, and is expected to be passed tomorrow and move to the Senate for consideration.