Residents angered at Lower North Fork Fire commission's failure to address wildfire's cause

3 died, 22 homes destroyed in wildfire

DENVER - Residents who lost loved ones and homes to the Lower North Fork Fire were disappointed and angry when the head of a state commission chair said the panel would not determine fault or negligence.

“This commission was not set up to find fault," said State Senator Ellen Roberts. “This is not a courtroom.”

During the Lower North Fork Fire Commission's last public hearing on Tuesday, residents blasted the panel's failure to get to the bottom of the March wildfire in Jefferson County that killed three people and destroyed 22 homes when high  winds spread embers from a controlled burn by state firefighters.

 

“You're making a mockery of the word investigation,” Andy Hoover, who lost his home in the wildfire,  told the commission. "You, ladies and gentleman, are here because of a bill that was passed…that charges you with investigating.  I think that you are avoiding your charge.”

"You're diluting our ability to be heard to the point of nonsense," he added.

Scott Appel, who lost his wife, home and land in the fire, was stunned by the commission's inability to address the causes of the devastating inferno.

"I've heard no answers," he told the panel. "If the state is going to take on prescribed burns and risk what's happened … in the case of this fire, they need to be prepared to fully and quickly make it right with the people that are damaged. The exact opposite of what's taken place here."

According to the House Bill 1352, which created the Lower North Fork Fire Commission, the commission was supposed "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."

"The main thing the commission was supposed to do was investigate the cause of the wildfire. Has it?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"Not in my mind, no it hasn't. There haven't been any direct answers to any of the direct questions by any of the wildfire victims," State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, said before the hearing.

Gerou sponsored the bill that created the commission which she sits on.

"The proceedings of the commission have not fulfilled the requirements of House Bill 1352 and have not satisfied, I believe, the intent of the legislation," said Gerou. "I'm really uncomfortable with the way the commission's gone forward. I don't think that they've been honest with the victims."

7NEWS reporter Amanda Kost asked Roberts, chair of the commission, if her panel had really investigated the wildfire?

"I think we have to the extent that we can as four legislators," Roberts, a Durango Republican, replied.

"This commission never was intended to be about the fault determining whose fault it was in this particular fire or compensation," Roberts added.

Kost asked if the commission questioned state forest service employees about how they handled the controlled burn?

"The state forest service has come here to speak generally about forest health," Roberts said. "You do need to recognize, there is an existing lawsuit (and forest officials) would not be allowed to speak (about their handling of the controlled burn). And we have not asked them to speak to the events of that day, because that's not our task."

Ask for her responsive to Gerou's criticism of the commission's work, Roberts said, "She's entitled to her opinion. I disagree with that."

On Tuesday, the commission voted to forward four proposed bills for the 2013 legislative session. The bills will be reviewed next month by the state Legislative Council.

The draft legislation includes proposals to require the state to adopt standards for conducting a controlled burn and to extend tax breaks to encourage homeowners to do wildfire mitigation to protect their property. Another draft bill would strengthen the state government's ability to mobilize resources during the initial attack on a wildfire.

The commission killed two other draft bills. One would have raised the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act's cap on state liability for wildfire damages from $600,000 per person to $1.2 million per person. The other bill would have required the development of county land regulations to combat wildfires.

Deputy Attorney General David Blake said at least 132 legal claims have been filed against the states over its handling of the fire. Total damages are in excess of $20 million.

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

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