State GOP Calls For Commission On Lower North Fork Fire

Commission Would Set Up Way For State To Pay Victims

There's now an effort to make sure people devastated by the Lower North Fork Fire are compensated by the state.

Republican lawmakers say the state cannot hide behind governmental immunity and there should not be a $600,000 cap on damages.

Republican leaders in the state house are calling for a commission to help figure out how to pay the victims.

Jefferson County estimated the structure loss at $11 million. Under the Colorado Government Immunity Act, the state’s combined claim is capped at $600,000, which must be divided amongst hundreds of victims.

"Does the state have $11 million or more to offer these victims?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"Well, we certainly anticipate that many of these folks have lost everything. In any case where the state is found civilly liable, in a situation like this, the state must be prepared -- as it has done historically -- the state must be prepared to live up to those obligations," said McNulty.

The proposed commission would have two goals. One goal would be to look into what occurred and to determine the state's responsibility and the other goal would be to put a process in place for residents to bring claims straight to lawmakers and not the courts.

"This is not a commission designed for investigation. This is a commission that is designed to help those victims and to help ensure that the victims of the North Fork fire are adequately compensated," said State Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, the Speaker of the House.

McNulty said the commission could go around the $600,000 cap.

"Given that $600,000 number, is there any willingness from the GOP to increase that amount?" asked Zelinger.

"Through this commission we certainly anticipate that number will change, yes," McNulty said.

Democrats, Governor's Office Call Bill 'Political'

Democrats at the Capitol said they were never informed or consulted about the commission.

"We were a little shocked. We thought that an issue like this, that should not be a partisan issue, this is something that we all care about. This is helping people in Colorado who have been harmed," said State Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the House Minority Leader.

Ferrandino said he found out about the idea of the commission through 7NEWS' reporting and through Twitter.

House Speaker: "The Governor Can Catch Up To Us"

The governor's office also said it did not know about the proposed commission or the idea of possibility lifting the liability cap.

“We completely understand the impulse to help the victims of this fire. There are no words to express how our hearts ache for the lost lives and lost property. In times of tragedy and great sorrow, we have a responsibility to act with our hearts, but also our heads. The state law limiting liability exists for a reason. Without the limits, local governments throughout Colorado would be forced to carry insurance policies to pay potential damages. Taxpayers would pay for those policies. Perhaps that’s a change Colorado should consider, but certainly not in a knee-jerk manner that lacks substance or attempts to politicize an already tragic situation," said Eric Brown, spokesman for the governor's office.

"We're going to move forward, the Governor can catch up to us when it gets to his desk," said McNulty.

On Monday, 7NEWS reporter Amanda Kost asked Hickenlooper about his stance on raising the $600,000 cap.

"That would have to be changed legislatively, I don't have that power," said Hickenlooper.

"We're here to tell you the legislature will act," said McNulty.

In announcing the commission through a news release the House GOP said, "The state of Colorado will step up and take responsibility for its mistakes."

Rep. Bob Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Rep. Cheri Gardner will sponsor the bill that will be introduced later this week, establishing the Lower North Fork Fire Commission.

“Our goal is to assist those Coloradans who lost so much due to the state’s apparent actions,” said Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “If a private company’s controlled fire-burn went out of control due to its negligence, destroying homes and killing individuals, they would be held liable. The state should not hide behind governmental immunity to avoid responsibility.”

The controlled burn by the Colorado Forest Service reignited during a high wind event on March 26, starting a wildfire that killed 3 people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes.

"The Lower North Fork Fire was a terrible accident that no one wanted. However, we need to recognize that the fire, which was started by the state, has devastated the lives of so many families in Jefferson County,” Gerou, who represents the area, said. "These families and individuals deserve to be heard and be compensated for their losses."

The committee would be made up of lawmakers, but who will sit on the commission would be up to the General Assembly.

“The commission will and recommend payment of claims on a fair and equitable basis,” Gardner added. “There will be limits on attorney’s fees and repayment of noneconomic damages. We simply want to ensure that these families and individuals are fairly compensated for their losses.”

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