Wildfire Commission to Compile Witness List

July 16, 2012

The fire, which started as a controlled burn, led to three deaths and destroyed some two dozen homes

DENVER– The Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission will compile a preliminary list of witnesses today in preparation for hearings that officially begin Aug. 13 when members will hear briefings on forest conditions, wildfire threats and mitigation measures; tour the burn site in the afternoon; and meet with victims at Conifer High Schoolin the evening.

Several government agencies have published reports about the cause and response to the Lower North Fork fire on March 26, but the commission’s report and recommendations will be the first generated in Colorado to incorporate victims’ testimony.

“We’re not a court of law – we’re a political forum and our responsibility is to educate ourselves to make recommendations to the legislature,” said Commission Chair Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango).

Roberts said the commission will submit a report and recommendations by Dec. 31, but it will neither be a “findings of fact” document nor legal instrument to be used in litigation between the victims and the state.

At the start of each hearing, Roberts plans to read a statement cautioning witnesses – citizens and governmental officials – that their testimony could be used for or against them in court cases as well as insurance disputes. She noted that these will have the tone of meetings – not hearings – and no one will be sworn in.

These concerns were raised at the commission’s June 29 meeting when Roberts was elected chair. Other members of the commission include Department of Public Safety Executive Director Jim Davis, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson (D-Black Hawk), Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) and Rep.Cheri Gerou(R-Evergreen).

Undisputed in published investigative reports is that the Colorado State Fire Service conducted a prescribed burn near Conifer and failed to monitor it on March 25. The following day, a deadly mix of high winds and dry conditions resulted in the fire that destroyed 23 homes and a community building, charred 4,140 acres and caused the deaths of three people.

By late June, firefighters were battling at least 10 fires throughout the state. The most damaging are High Park fire in Larimer County that destroyed 259 homes, killed one woman and scorched 87,284 acres, and the Waldo Canyon fire inEl PasoCountythat decimated 347 homes in Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs, took the lives of two people and charred more than 18,000 acres.

Regardless of how the fires were ignited, Roberts said they share common concerns such as arid conditions, high winds, forest ecology, mitigation methods and emergency response systems. She said the magnitude and complexity of factors leading to wildfires may result in the commission recommending the creation of a long term task force.

“The hope was that this would be victims’ voice and that was it,” said Gerou, who with Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) sponsored House Bill 1352 this year that established the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission.

“I want to help these people regain confidence in their government,” said Gerou, whose district includes the Conifer area. She objected to expanding the goals of the commission at the June 29 meeting. She noted that unlike other fires so far in 2012, the Lower North Fork Wildfire was caused in part by the negligence of Colorado State Fire Service employees “who decided to take that Sunday off” instead of checking the controlled burn on March 25.

Citing language in the bill, Roberts said the commission’s responsibility is “to investigate the causes of the wildfire and to make recommendations for legislative or other action that would prevent the occurrence of a similar tragedy.”

Roberts, whose district has battled at least three fires in Southwest Colorado this summer, told constituents that the commission hopes to “identify the legislative and regulatory obstacles preventing positive change in Colorado’s forest and wildlife management.”

Roberts, whose first job was a park ranger and earned a law degree focused on natural resources, recalled having to evacuate 10 years ago during the Missionary Ridge fire that impacted areas of Durango, Bayfield and Vallecito areas – the same year as the Hayman fire that torched 133 homes on the Front Range.

“Colorado’s forests are sick, dying, and without serious change (they) will no longer be a place of rest and respite, but will threaten the lives of those live in them and those who fight the fires that rage from them,” said Roberts.

“How many times will we repeat this terrible experience before we do what it takes to get different results than blackened earth, terribly high costs, and people who’ve lost their lives or homes?” asked Roberts.

The commission’s goals are independent of House Bill 1361, sponsored by Gerou and Gardner that amended the Government Immunity Act by including prescribed burns in the list of waivers.

That bill allows the Colorado State Claims Board to make recommendations to the General Assembly to offer compensation beyond the state’s liability caps of $150,000 per person and a total of $600,000 per event for damage claims emanating from the Lower North Fork wildfire. The claims could be in excess of $11.3 million, and those claims will eliminate insured property damages and emotional losses.

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