2 Lower North Fork Bills Closer To Governor's Desk

Bills Would Create Investigative Commission, Allow Victims To File Claims Beyond State Limit

They waited to testify for more than eight hours, but by late Monday night, Lower North Fork fire victims heard good news at the Capitol.

A Senate committee gave initial approval to two bills dealing with the March 26 fire that killed three people, destroyed 22 homes and scorched 4,100 acres.

The first bill, House Bill 1352, will create a commission made up of lawmakers to investigate the fire. The second bill, House Bill 1361, will allow victims to file claims in excess of the state's $600,000 total liability limit.

Both pieces of legislation are making it through the Capitol after 7NEWS aired a 30-minute special entitled, "Investigating The Fire," on Wednesday night. It revealed mistakes made prior to the state prescribed burn reigniting and becoming the Lower North Fork wildfire.

The committee was supposed to meet after the Senate recessed from its 10 a.m. floor session. Instead, the two bills were not heard until 6:30 p.m.

Only 7NEWS was there when as more than a dozen victims testified for 82 minutes.

"I didn't have the opportunity to look them in the face. I have nothing that gets passed down to me from my parents," said Sam Lucas, whose parents Sam and Linda Lucas died in the fire. "Next Sunday is the first Mother's Day I don't get to write a card because of the fire."

"We're not here to get rich off of this. We're here for you to do the right thing," said Kristen Moeller, whose home was destroyed in the fire. "When people make mistakes, we're taught to make it right. Just give us the faith again."

Lawmakers Could Investigate Lower North Fork Fire

House Bill 1352 will create a commission made up of lawmakers to investigate the Lower North Fork fire. The Governor has already had an independent review of the prescribed burn and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office has conducted a "cause and origin" investigation. Neither found any criminal wrongdoing or led to any disciplinary action.

"We have never been consulted during any of the previous investigations," said fire victim Sharon Scanlan.

So far, there has not been an investigation into the time frame between the fire escaping the prescribed burn area and when homes were burning to the ground less than three hours later.

The Governor has asked for the U.S. Forest Service to do such an investigation, but once approved, it could take more than a year for preliminary results.

A legislative commission would investigate that time line. Lawmakers and the Governor have promised not to let a fire like this happen again.

"The only way we can do that is to promise a full review and investigation," said Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, the Senate sponsor of both Lower North Fork fire bills.

"A true investigation into how these various governmental entities handled this unnecessary and completely avoidable fire is reasonable indeed," said Scott Appel, whose wife, Ann, died in the fire.

Action Taken After 7NEWS 30-Minute Special

House Bill 1352 was originally also going to set up a claims process for victims of the Lower North Fork fire to potentially file claims for more than the state's limit. Instead, a new bill was created for claims purposes.

Less than 24 hours after the 7NEWS special, "Investigating The Fire," Governor John Hickenlooper, Attorney General John Suthers and leadership from both the House and Senate announced a new bill to deal with victim compensation.

House Bill 1361 will allow victims to file claims with the state claims board, which can consider claims in excess of the state's $600,000 total liability limit.

During the Senate hearing, one of the lawmakers used the term "negligence" when describing the state's actions.

"Any restitution cannot really cover the losses that people have had in so many ways," said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins. "(In) some small way it shows that the General Assembly is trying to address the problem that was created through negligence of agencies of the state."

During his testimony Monday night, Appel showed senators what he described during the 7NEWS special, "Investigating The Fire." During the special, he said the only thing he had left of his wife was a pair of sunglasses that she left on the dash of their truck. On Monday night, he showed the senators those sunglasses.

"This is what I have left of my wife after nearly 23 years of marriage," said Appel.

When he started his testimony, Appel held up a photo of his wife for the lawmakers to see.

"This is my wife, Ann. Best looking boss I ever had," said Appel.

The two bills still need to be approved by the entire Senate. Even if approved, there is still some uncertainty as to what happens during the claims process.

"The legislation says what can be done. It does not say what will be done," said Appel.

Residents have 180 days from the date of their loss to file a notice of claim with the state. After that, the state claims board can hear review the claim. If the damages are greater than the state's limit, the claims board will refer the amount to the state legislature for final approval.

During the news conference announcing the legislation on Thursday, 7NEWS asked Suthers and found out that if the state legislature rejected the claim, there is no appeals process.

Lawmakers have until the end of Wednesday to pass these two bills before the close of the legislative session.

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