Lower North Fork Fire commission final report finds no blame, but makes general recommendations

Commission created after 7NEWS 30-minute special

DENVER - The final report from the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission does not assign blame for the March fire that killed three people and destroyed 22 homes.

7NEWS obtained a copy of the final report that makes general recommendations regarding wildfire mitigation and response, but does not address specific issues regarding the Lower North Fork Fire.

The commission was created after 7NEWS aired a 30-minute special, "Investigating the Fire," at the beginning of May. Within days, the legislature fast-tracked two pieces of legislation before the end of the 2012 legislative session:

  1. Creating a Lower North Fork wildfire commission
  2. Allowing victims of the Lower North Fork Fire to have claims heard in front of the state's claims board instead of going through the legal system

The 58-page report includes general wildfire recommendations and four pieces of legislation that will be introduced this session.

The commission made recommendations on:

  • Wildfire management
  • Prescribed burns
  • Forest health
  • Emergency management/notification
  • State government liability (dollar amount the state would be responsible for paying victims)

"By bringing up these separate issues, we're still ignoring the fact that the state was responsible for the fire and they're not dealing with that responsibility," said commission member State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.

The commission did not investigate the cause of the fire or assign blame.

"I've read through this. Am I missing where the commission talked about the cause of the wildfire?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"No, you're not missing it. In fact, that was part of my frustration. That was the frustration of the victim's of the wildfire," said Gerou.

The only reference to the cause of the fire is in the background section of the report:

"Based on a report issued by an independent review team convened by Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado State University President Tony Frank, embers from a prescribed burn are believed to have ignited the wildfire, which was labeled the Lower North Fork wildfire."

"Did the commission not talk about the cause of the wildfire because the state's being sued?" asked Zelinger.

"That was the elephant in the room and nobody ever really talked about that," said Gerou.

According to the commission's final report, 132 claims have been filed against the state, including 16 from insurance companies or other corporate entities.

After the 7NEWS 30-minute special, lawmakers passed legislation that was supposed to allow victims' claims to be heard by the state's claims board, instead of suing the state in court. Because of the 16 other lawsuits, the victims have been told they have to wait for the legal process to play out before their claims can be heard.

"(The state's claims board) were supposed to be making a recommendation to the Joint Budget Committee in January, right now," said Gerou. "They haven't even started and we're not even close to it."

7NEWS reached commission member, State Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, by phone.

She told 7NEWS there were no findings about the cause of the fire because the commission had no budget, no staff and limited time.

"We did what we could do," said Levy. "If you're looking for us to point a finger at somebody, I don't think we had the time to adequately investigate the fire."

7NEWS obtained a letter sent from commission chair, State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, to victims of the fire in early December.

The letter revealed four pieces of legislation that would be introduced during the 2013 session, which begins on Wednesday. The last paragraph defended the commission's role:

"While I know there are disappointments to many affected by this wildfire, I am also convinced that, give the very limited resources provided by the legislature and the time constraints we faces as an interim committee impacted by a devastating wildfire season statewide, the hard work by the commission did produce substantive legislative proposals based on lessons learned from the Lower North Fork Wildfire." 

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