JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. -
As they approach the one-year mark since the Lower North Fork Fire, survivors seek answers from the Attorney General about their claims against the state.
One year ago on Tuesday, the Lower North Fork Fire took the lives of Ann Appel and Sam and Linda Lucas. It destroyed 22 homes and charred 4,100 acres.
The fire was a prescribed burn set by the Colorado State Forest Service on March 22, 2012. It was not properly extinguished and escaped its boundaries on March 26.
Nearly one year later, the claims not covered by insurance, are no closer to being paid to the survivors.
"Where should you be right now? One year later," asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.
"I would have hoped to have been in a home instead of in my third rental," said survivor Tom Scanlan.
Lower North Fork Fire survivors received a surprise in Jefferson County District Court on Friday afternoon.
Attorneys representing the Attorney General's Office presented a plan that would allow some victims to have their claims heard through a state claims board process, while other claims would still have to go through the judicial process in court.
In a joint news conference in May, Governor John Hickenlooper, Attorney General John Suthers and both legislative houses announced a compromise that would allow Lower North Fork Fire victims a chance to avoid court and have their full claims heard by a state claims board on which Suthers sits.
"How soon would this take effect and how soon could these victims be getting money?" Zelinger asked at that May news conference.
"It takes effect, immediately, right? Upon my signature, it takes effect. They prepare or present their claims to the claims board; it's happening in real time," said Hickenlooper.
Suthers and then-Senate President Brandon Shaffer assisted the Governor in his answer.
Nearly one year to the date of the fire, the victims have not been allowed to go through the claims board process. They are stuck in court, despite being told they could avoid that process.
In February, 7NEWS asked the Attorney General's Office why the victims are being forced to go through a court process.
We found out that once the insurance companies sued the state, seeking restitution for claims it had paid out, the victims' claims were bundled into the court process. The victims must now wait for the judicial process to play out before the legislative claims board can hear any additional claims.
--Options presented to survivors by Attorney General's representatives in court--
In court on Friday, the Attorney General's Office presented three options for victims:
1. Claimants with documented economic loses can present their claims to the state claims board and then have those recommendations considered by the state legislature for final approval.
2. Claimants with non-economic loses can have their claims considered by a four-judge "judicial arbiter group" which would review the claims and consider compensation to be approved by a judge through the court process.
3. Claimants with non-economic loses and "exotic claims," such as civil rights and inverse condemnation claims, will have to go to litigation and not be allowed to have their claims heard by the state claims board.
The attorneys in the court equaled the number of survivors watching the proceedings. There were attorneys representing the victims, various insurance companies and Intermountain Rural Electric Association.
"We are now nearly one year after the fire and not a dime has been paid to my clients, and we are still stuck on square one because of bureaucratic red tape posed to us by the Attorneys General," said Tom Henderson, an attorney representing a number of the victims. "This is anything but real-time compensation. They didn't have to do it that way. They could have allowed the claims board process to work through its natural course as it was designed to do by our legislature."
The defendants include the state of Colorado, the Colorado State Forest Service and three individuals who were directly involved with the prescribed burn that led to the Lower North Fork Fire. Nearly a dozen attorneys represented the defendants.
"We're now a year out (and) this legislative session recesses in early May. How in the world can my people get compensation in that amount of time, even if it's not full compensation? They can, perhaps, get some compensation by the time legislature recesses," said Henderson. "If that legislature recesses and my clients don't have fair compensation, we're now eight more months down the road until January of 2014, before the legislature is back in session."
"We're one year later, is this real time," asked Zelinger.
"Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not," said State. Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.
Gardner sponsored the bill that allowed survivors to avoid court by presenting their claims to the state claims board.
"I have to tell you, it was never meant to be this complicated," said Gardner.
--Survivors seek answers from Attorney General--
"The Attorney General has done nothing but to delay and impede the will of the legislation," said Scanlan.
The survivors want answers from the Attorney General.
"I guess I'd ask the question, 'why would the state not hold itself to the same time standard they would hold any private party to or any insurance company?'" said Appel. "It's a joke and not a good one."
"I would just love to sit down and have a conversation and say so much, and listen to what his logic is," said Jenny Lucas, granddaughter of Sam and Linda Lucas.
"I'd like to tell the Attorney General how disgusted I am at the incredible display of chicanery that we saw in the courtroom (Friday)," said Scanlan.
"I'd like to ask him if he believes that these people deserve restitution from our state," said Beth Semptimphelter. "I think he's got to believe that to go forward and really pull for it."
"How does it feel to be back here in the courtroom? Disgusting. It does. I can't believe that this isn't behind us yet," said Lower North Fork Fire survivor Kim Olson. "I feel like we're a challenge, we're a problem and it's something they'd like to get past. And for us, our lives are on hold. We're just basically hanging here, waiting for them to do the right thing."
Since late February, 7NEWS has made multiple requests to interview Suthers regarding the process that the Lower North Fork Fire victims are going through. On March 14, Suthers' spokeswoman scheduled an interview time for March 21. Early that morning, the interview was abruptly canceled. 7NEWS was told it was because of security concerns. On Friday, the spokeswoman told 7NEWS it was because Suthers had a change in his schedule.
"This is not about us. This is about the state. The state that hasn't done anything for us yet," said survivor Jeanie Hoover.
The next court date is May 3.
Survivors of the Lower North Fork Fire plan to gather at the State Capitol on Tuesday, exactly one year after the fire.