State Forest Service Admits Role In Jeffco Fire

Deputy State Forester: 'Embers Came From Prescribed Burn That We Conducted'

The Colorado State Forest Service admitted to 7NEWS that the Lower North Fork Fire started as a result of a prescribed burn it was conducting late last week.

"Did the Colorado State Forest Service cause the Lower North Fork fire?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"I think the answer to that is the embers came from within the prescribed burn that we conducted," said Deputy State Forester Joe Duda.

The Lower North Fork Fire has scorched 4,500 acres, killed two people and destroyed 23 homes. Sam Lucas, 77, and Linda Lucas, 76, were killed, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. One other person is missing and hundreds are still evacuated from their homes.

On Wednesday, the Colorado Forest Service initiated a prescribed burn on Denver Water board property. The purpose was to reduce woody fuel from past forest restoration activity.

On Thursday, the Forest Service conducted the main burn of 35 acres.

"On Thursday, the weather conditions, the forecast, all the parameters that are necessary to operate under, looked good so we conducted the prescribed burn," said Duda.

On Friday, the Forest Service sent crews out to complete mop up and patrol the perimeter.

Those patrols continued through the weekend and on Monday.

On Monday, a fire reignited in the prescribed burn area.

"In an area, it's my understanding, where we had patrolled earlier, we noticed that there was some fresh fire activity burning within the containment line," said Duda. "As the crew moved up to take action that fire crossed the road into the uncontained area."

Duda said the crew was in a fire truck and requested additional help.

Should Prescribed Burn Have Happened

In his 7-day outlook last Thursday, meteorologist Matt Makens predicted windy conditions for Monday.

"Did you know on Thursday that it would be windy on Monday?" asked Zelinger.

"I don't have access to the weather report. I haven't reviewed the weather data. At this time, I would have to defer to the judgment of crew that were on site that made that call," said Duda. "We'll be putting together a review team that will look all the parameters that we considered in conducting the prescribed burn."

The Forest Service will begin its own investigation and expects to have a report available in two weeks.

State Liable Only Up To $600,000

Under state law, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Law protects the state and taxpayers from expensive liability. If the state is found to be responsible for the fire, it would only be liable to pay a maximum of $600,000 total for all victims to split. No one person could get more than $150,000.

"For anyone and any claim, for loss of life, loss of property, damage, injury, loss of use, even the cost of fighting the fire, the total amount the state would have to pay capped by law is $600,000," said attorney Jim Chalat. "The check that would be written would be $600,000. That wouldn't come anywhere close to paying for the damages."

Governor Responds From Mexico City

Governor John Hickenlooper is on a trade mission in Mexico City. He spoke with 7NEWS by phone about the fires, and the cost of fighting wildfires so early in the year.

"I think we're going to have several difficult years and there's no easy way -- if we were actually to try to thin out all the forest beset by beetle kill, you're talking not just millions of dollars, you're talking about tens of billions of dollars, to really clean out all the forest and remove all this dry timber," said Hickenlooper.

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