DENVER – The Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission listened to nearly six hours of testimony Wednesday that revealed inadequacies in the state’s emergency response to fires, conflicts between governmental regulations for prescribed burns and disputes over the purpose of the commission.
The hearing did not produce answers for the victims of a government-authorized “prescribed burn” in March that erupted into a massive fire, killing three people, decimating 23 homes and destroying more than 4,000 acres in Jefferson County.
“I am not seeing a concerted effort to answer questions that the victims put forward,” said Rep.Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen), who, along with Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs), sponsored legislation that created the commission.
Commission Chair Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) said the purpose of the hearings to enable the commissioners to make recommendations to prevent tragedies similar to the Lower North Fork Fire. The commission’s report will not declare blame or determine compensation for the victims.
Chief Bill McLaughlin of the Elk Creek Fire Protection District said he had called for additional emergency fire responders when high winds swept the prescribed fire into a raging blaze. McLaughlin said several hours passed before nearby crews arrived.
Experts testified that prescribed burns are used to thin forests and prevent fires, but they require wind to achieve the purpose as well as clear the air of smoke to comply with air quality regulations enforced by the Air Pollution Control division of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.
After the commission had listened to nearly five hours of 30-minute presentations by government officials, Gerou bristled when the fire victims were allotted only five minutes to make statements and ask questions.
“If we are limiting their testimony when in fact the purpose of the legislation was to allow the victims voice, I have a little bit of a problem. No, I have a big problem with limiting their testimony to five minutes,” declared Gerou.
But, the hearing agenda was set and allowed just 30 minutes total to hear the victims’ comments.
“I take profound exception to what I heard today,” said Andy Hoover of Conifer. “It’s a mockery of an investigation.”
“I feel that there’s been a bit of dancing going on here,” said Gerou of the failure to get direct answers and accountability for the Lower North Fork Fire.
The victims, she said, have lost faith in government and their trust had not been restored because the hearings have not produced truthful, clear answers.
“There’s a misimpression about what we’re able to do here,” said Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder), who noted that legislation creating the commission limited it to five hearings and allotted no funding.
If the intent of the bill was to conduct a full blown investigation into prescribed burn policies, emergency response and evacuation notices, Levy said, it fell short.
Of all the hours of testimony heard, Gerou said Levy’s comments were “probably the most honest.”
Testimony by some government officials might also be constrained because it could be used against them in litigation of victims’ claims against the state.
The commission plans to reconvene in September, and will submit a report to the legislature by Dec. 31 with recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy.