7NEWS Asks Gov. About Blame For Lower North Fork Fire

Gov. John Hickenlooper Waiting For 3rd Investigation About Fire Supression

Lower North Fork fire victims are preparing for another date at the Capitol.

The legislative bill that would create a Lower North Fork fire commission, potentially opening up the state to unlimited losses, will be in front of the state Senate on Thursday afternoon.

Since the fire, 7NEWS requested a sit-down interview with Governor John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, about his independent review, the responsibility of the state and the compensation of victims.

"Who's been held accountable for the Lower North Fork Fire?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"At this point we're still working through the sequence of the facts," said Hickenlooper.

The Lower North Fork fire killed three people; Sam and Linda Lucas and Ann Appel. It charred 4,140 acres and destroyed 22 homes.

Following the fire, the Governor banned all prescribed burns on state land and called for an independent investigation into the Lower North Fork prescribed burn.

That review, led by Bill Bass, supervisor of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, found some mistakes but laid no blame.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office investigation into the cause and origin of the fire found no criminal wrongdoing.

"Someone started the fire. Three people died, two dozen homes damaged or destroyed. No one was found to be criminally liable. No one's been fired. There's been no discipline. What kind of message does that send?" asked Zelinger.

"It's a message that is very frustrating to people and I understand that. Justice is slow, right? If you're going to try to get the facts and make sure that you don't railroad somebody … when you try to get to justice very rapidly, often times bad things happen. I understand why that's frustrating," said Hickenlooper. "If mistakes were made, and I'm not arguing that there weren't mistakes in this whole process, what's the appropriate discipline as a result of those mistakes?"

Fire Victim: 'Those People Should Be Canned'

"Those people should be canned," said David Cottrell, one of 22 homeowners to lose his house in the fire.

"Oh, 'Oops, sorry' doesn't really cut it," said resident David Mazza.

7NEWS has spent more than five weeks meeting with victims of the fire. They've revealed their most intimate losses and expressed concerns over not having anyone accountable for what they no longer have.

"I know how unpopular this is. I know that there are a lot of people out there that are furious with me, with government, with Jefferson County, whatever. They want action, and they want it now. I understand that. I've been in that same state, but somehow we have to be more -- I have the responsibility to try and make sure we get all the facts," said Hickenlooper.

The facts from the Governor's own review show that the Colorado State Forest Service violated its own prescribed burn plan by not monitoring the burn area for a minimum of three days, specifically Sunday, March 25 -- the day before the fire reignited and escaped.

"There was one break of protocol where no one went and looked at the fire on Sunday. Now, Bill Bass thought that did not contribute to the escape of the fire because they came back on Monday morning and the fire was completely out, or they felt it was completely out. And while they were there just kind of walking around and rolling up hoses and leaving, they judged the fire to be completely controlled, suddenly this freak wind came up," said Hickenlooper.

Wind was forecast ahead of time. On Saturday, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Watch for the burn area to take effect Monday. By Sunday, the watch became a Red Flag Warning to take effect Monday. A Red Flag Warning is issued by the National Weather Service to call attention of forecast users to special conditions that may result in extreme burning conditions. It may forecast rapid changes in weather conditions which may increase the fire danger rapidly.

On Thursday night, four days before the fire, 7NEWS meteorologist Matt Makens was predicting windy conditions for that Monday.

"As much as you want someone to be found responsible and held accountable, we don't know for sure, yet, I don't think, how responsible anyone was and whether this wasn't just a freak act of nature," said Hickenlooper. "Now, we started this prescribed burn, there's no question about that. But, according to the Bill Bass report, the prescribed burn was started following and conforming to all the protocols and the way we do these things all over the state."

That statement is not entirely accurate, as Hickenlooper mentioned earlier that the plan did find errors when the Colorado State Forest Service violated its own plan by not monitoring the burn on Sunday, March 25.

7NEWS Asks Post Wildfire Analysis Expert To Review Fire

After the Governor's 152-page review was released, 7NEWS sent the information to post wildfire analysis expert Rich Schell.

Schell has three decades of experience and is a former chief officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He has a history of studying fire planning, management, protection and suppression. He normally gets paid to break down what went right or wrong with wildfires. He reviewed the Lower North Fork fire information at no cost, on his own time.

He reviewed dozens of photos and hundreds of pages of documents including the Governor's review and the Lower North Fork burn plan.

"This needs to be reviewed on a serious, investigative basis, not like the Governor's task force report," said Schell. I describe the Governor's review as being very soft. I think it has a political undertone. Let's be realistic here, nobody wants to accept responsibility or be liable for this loss, the escaped prescribed burn."

We also asked him who should take responsibility for the fire.

"I think it has to go back to the people that did the prescribed burn. I think there was a significant communications failure between the management team, the burn plan team, the review team and the implementation team; the burn boss, the ignition boss and the holding specialist. That lack of communications was a significant portion of the failure that occurred," said Schell.

In response to the Governor's plan being called, "Soft," Hickenlooper's spokesman Eric Brown provided the following statement:

    "With all due respect to the California forest expert, nothing about the report by Bill Bass was political or soft. His fire expertise, impartiality and integrity are second to none. We very much appreciate the countless hours Bill and his team spent reviewing the prescribed fire, interviewing those people directly involved and for the recommendations he made in his report.

    Bill Bass has extensive experience with dozens of fire-related reviews in his career with the U.S. Forest Service. He joined the USFS in 1975 and has worked in Utah, Idaho, Colorado and -- for the last 12 years -- Wyoming. He once held the position of acting deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region of the USFS. Further, Bass has spent the past 22 years in a leadership role as a Line Office and Agency Administrator within the USFS. His current role as Forest Supervisor on the Bighorn National Forest includes responsibility for more than 1 million acres of federal land.

Will Governor Discipline Anyone Involved?

7NEWS wanted to know if the Governor is going to call for any discipline.

"Let me be clear, they don't report to me. They report to Colorado State University, so I don't have authority to discipline anybody, but that's certainly concerning," said Hickenlooper.

"Can you make recommendations?" asked Zelinger.

"We certainly can make recommendations," said Hickenlooper.

"Do you plan on it?" asked Zelinger.

"Again, our goal is to bring out all that information and not rush to judgment, and to make certain that we have heard and seen all sides of the issue," said Hickenlooper. "That being said, I suspect we will have some recommendations once we get all the information."

"Recommendations for discipline?" asked Zelinger.

"I think we'll have a number of recommendations in a number of areas. I don't want to conjecture that's it's going to be around discipline or 'this' because we don't have all the facts yet," said Hickenlooper. "I feel, just in what we've seen so far there are places where we will have suggestions."

Governor Awaiting Third Investigation By U.S. Forest Service

Hickenlooper cautioned that more facts will be revealed by an investigation he's called for by the U.S. Forest Service.

"The real next question is to do the review, which the Forest Service is doing for us, of what they call the 'suppression.' Once the fire escaped, did we do everything we could? Did the state do it? Did the county -- Jefferson County? Did the State Forest Service which operates under CSU? When the fire escaped, what happened? Some people have asked, 'Why did it take so long for the evacuation to be given?' Was there a communications issue in the suppression of the fire?"

Those are the answers residents have told 7NEWS they are still seeking.

7NEWS has confirmed that U.S. Forest Service review hasn't started yet. It hasn't even been accepted and approved in Washington, D.C.

If it does, results likely won't come quick. A similar investigation into the Boulder Fourmile Canyon fire took 13 months before preliminary results.

Fair Compensation For Fire Victims

7NEWS was the first to reveal the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act that limits the state's liability to just $600,000; $600,000 total, to be split between all victims.

"Are you willing to encourage lawmakers to offer more than the $600,000 immunity cap?" asked Zelinger.

"I think it's a question that we have to discuss. Do they deserve a different set of rules or different compensation than everyone else gets? And I'm not saying that they might not, I'm just saying that that's a difficult question," said Hickenlooper. "We have a cap of $600,000; maybe we should be raising it? Maybe we should have certain exemptions from that cap? If people think we should revisit that and raise the cap, I'm happy to lead that discussion."

"How does the state compensate for the loss of land value, the loss of memories and a sense of safety?" asked Zelinger.

"When you look at someone losing, not just their home, someone who loses their loved ones or their lifetime of photographs or furniture they inherited from their grandparents, I mean, all those things, they don't come back, there is no way to bring those kinds of losses back," said Hickenlooper. "It's more than just the money, although the money obviously helps people rebuild. There are going to be a number of discussions on how do we do everything we can to help these people rebuild their lives."

Lawmakers Consider New Bill Allowing Victims To File Claims Without Cap

A last-minute bill at the state legislature attempts to create a Lower North Fork fire commission. It would allow victims to bypass the courts and the $600,000 cap, and file claims with state lawmakers who would consider each claim without a financial limit.

That bill has already passed the House and is up for debate in a Senate committee on Thursday at noon.

When 7NEWS spoke with Hickenlooper, the bill had not been sent to the Senate. His spokesman Eric Brown said, "We have identified several policy and legal issues in the proposed bill that need a thorough and thoughtful vetting. We are working closely with the Attorney General's Office and members of the General Assembly to explore ways to address the concerns raised by the victims of the Lower North Fork fire."

Watch a 7NEWS Special Report at 10:35 tonight on the Lower North Fork Fire.

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