Lower North Fork Fire Victims Want Answers

August 21, 2012

From left to right: Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango), Reps. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen) and Claire Levy (D-Boulder)

DENVER– Victims of the Lower North Fork Wildfire want answers and accountability by government agencies that authorized a “prescribed burn” that erupted into a raging fire in March, killing three people, destroying 23 homes and scorching 4,140 acres.

“You need to understand the profound anger that we have,” declared Andy Hoover.

The victims plan to attend all of the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission hearings including one this Wednesday at the state Capitol.

The testimony will include watershed protection and mitigation measures presented by Don Kennedy of Denver Water, which owns the land where the “prescribed burn” was conducted.

After the 2002 Hayman Fire and 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire, Denver Water entered into a five-year agreement with the USDA Forest Service in July 2010 to manage forests and protect water supplies.

The Forest to Faucet plan aimed to “reduce wildfire risk through forest thinning, prescribed fire (burns), and other forest health treatments.” The goals also included restoring burned areas through tree planting and vegetation improvements to minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.

Denver Water’s mitigation plan was one of several issues raised at the Aug. 13 public hearing that drew more than 150 people to Conifer High School. It was the first official forum for victims to voice their sorrow, anger and concerns.

“Where is the accountability?” demanded Tom Scanlon, whose home was destroyed in the fire.

Scanlon said fire damage has devalued property by 15 percent for minimal impact to 75 percent for total destruction. He said land reclamation will cost $2,000 to $12,000 per acre, depending on the extent of damage and terrain.

“It’s a view of hell,” declared a man, of property devastation.

Fire victims said they felt betrayed by government agencies for decisions igniting the fire in extremely dry and windy conditions, failing to monitor and put out the burn, and ignoring their frantic calls to 911 about the fire spreading.

“Who made these decisions?” asked Susan Sorenson, whose sister-in-law Anna Appel had called 911 to report the fire, but was told it was just a prescribed burn.

She said Appel never received a call to evacuate and perished in the fire.

Not readily resolved will be victims’ claims against the state of Colorado for damages. Currently, the state has received an estimated 50 claims, most from insurance companies, which will be heard prior to those filed by fire victims.

“The process is not going be quick – unfortunately,” said Deputy Attorney General David Blake.

Blake said that the fire victims must submit a “notice of claim” by Sept. 22 to be considered by the state claims board. All claims for compensation will first be heard by a Jefferson County district judge.

State Rep.Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen) complained that the victims’ compensation claims should have a higher priority than others and be expedited. The claims could exceed $11.3 million, and may take two years to process.

Gerou, who with Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) sponsored House Bill 1352, which created the commission, and House Bill 1361, which amended the Government Immunity Act to include prescribed burns in the list of waivers to allow higher damage awards.

“I want to make it very clear what this commission is and what it is not,” said state Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) who chairs the five-member Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission. “We are not here to determine fault… we also are not entitled to determine compensation.”

The commission will report findings based on testimony and records, and make recommendations for legislative or other measures to prevent a similar tragedy. Because of the increasing number and size of wildfires inColorado, Roberts said the commission may recommend that a task force be established to study the complexities of the problem.

In 2012, Colorado battled more than 10 wildfires that charred roughly 250,000 acres, killed six people and decimated more than 600 homes.

The Lower North Fork wildfire began as a controlled burn set by the Colorado State Fire Service.

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