Attorney General’s Office presents new hurdle keeping Lower North Fork Fire claims from swift review
Marshall Zelinger – Denver 7 News – goo.gl/oKRD5
JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. – Lower North Fork Fire victims 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.
This played out in a courtroom exactly one year after the Colorado State Forest Service ignited a prescribed burn that four days later would escape its intended boundaries. On March 26, 2012, the Lower North Fork Fire destroyed 4,140 acres, 22 homes and killed three people.
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?” asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger 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.
The Governor was assisted in his answer by Suthers and then-Senate President Brandon Shaffer.
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 any additional claims can be heard by the legislative claims board.
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.
“I’d like to tell the Attorney General how disgusted I am at the incredible display of chicanery that we saw in the courtroom today,” said Lower North Fork Fire survivor Tom Scanlan.
“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.
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.”
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. The defendants were represented by nearly a dozen attorneys.
“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.”
Scott Appel, whose wife Ann was killed in the fire, wants to know why no one has been held accountable nearly one year later.
“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.”
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.
Linda Kirkpatrick | 10 September 2012 Life In Evergreen as seen by Linda Kirkpatrick – http://justaroundhere.com/life-in-evergreen/1907-survivors-of-the-lower-north-fork-fire-part-3-of-a-series.html
March 26th was the first day of Spring Break. Sara Shirley and her two children had packed some things in anticipation of a getaway to a cabin along the Big Thompson River at Estes Park when the children returned from visiting their dad.
About 2:30 that afternoon Sara saw smoke and called 911 and was assured “crews were on the way — don’t worry about it.” She and her dad began driving around to see if they could locate where the smoke was coming from, determining it was two ridges away from their home near Kuehster Road. They stopped to warn a neighbor before returning home.
(Photo above before the fire shows the main house and the apartment in the structure to the right where Sara lived)
A prescribed burn on Denver Water Board property – conducted by the Colorado Forest Service the week before and left unchecked for 44 hours – had been whipped up by hurricane-force winds that Monday.
She was a bit impatient with her parents who seemed too calm about it all. She found herself experiencing a panic attack, walking around her apartment and looking at things, thinking “I can’t take all these things with me — I just hope I’ll see them again.” She packed more things into the car, urging her parents to do the same, and repositioned the cars to get out when everyone was ready.
A volunteer with the InterCanyon Fire Department had driven down their driveway warning the family to get out immediately, Sara recalled. Everything moved quickly at that point. “For a long time [after the fire], I was convinced he was not real – that he was an angel who appeared….”
“The whole thing was surreal,” she said recently. It was not until the next day that Sara and her parents would learn from TV news coverage that their homes had burned. A fleeting aerial view from video shot from a helicopter allowed them to spot their driveway with no buildings left where they’d once stood. It would be more than a week before homeowners were escorted back to their homesites.
To deal with their shock and disbelief, the three generations retreated to Estes Park for four days and four nights.
Her 12-year-old daughter recalls getting the news through her dad, crying initially but then being comforted by the fact that everyone got out. Her dad had helped her focus on the good aspects, and they talked about all sticking together. The first day back to school crowds were swarming her in every class. “It made me feel like people really cared and were there to comfort me,” she recalled.
There was a tremendous outpouring of support from the community, Sara said. “It was breathtaking.” Six months after the event, she still teared up with emotion telling the story of how the community rallied to support them and wanting me to convey her tremendous feeling of gratitude.
When Sara and her family were freezing, Mountain Resource Center (MRC) provided them with hats, coats, gloves and blankets for their beds. MRC sought out in-kind donations to furnish a temporary home and provided clothing, household items and “random stuff.” “Everything in our home (except for beds) was donated by friends and people we didn’t know,” she said with an expression of appreciation. “The outpouring was amazing. People we don’t know have been the most generous.”
Her two children were the only ones in public schools whose homes were lost in the fire. Area schools conducted fundraisers with West Jeff Elementary and West Jeff Middle Schools raising about $1,600 between them. Parmalee Elementary in Indian Hills raised about $3,000. Students there wrote letters expressing their concern and support and prepared a huge Easter basket made from a laundry tub, Sara recounted. Each of the students signed their names on the tub and filled it with toys for the children.
“Both the school therapists were really amazing,” Sara says with enthusiasm. She goes on to explain that her 10-year-old son has expressed a lot of frustration since the fire, attributing much of it to the fire. He says it was his dream to live in that spot, on that mountain and tells his mom he is expecting a Christmas miracle as if Santa is going to make their house reappear in time for Christmas. “What am I supposed to do with that?!” she says in anguish.
“There’s too much going on to feel the grief part,” she says, explaining that she tends to push her emotions aside. If I desperately need to do something [to escape thinking about the fire], I do something artistic. It makes me feel better.”
As a divorced mom with two kids, Sara had moved back home to be able to attend college two and a half years earlier. As a student at Red Rocks Community College, she had begun her studies in pursuit of a degree as an art teacher/elementary school teacher. The disruption of the fire caused her to drop out of classes, putting her into a category of “unsatisfactory achievement” and triggering the need to repay the $500 Pell grant because she failed to complete the semester. It now interferes with her ability to qualify for future financial assistance.
“I haven’t been able to work for six months,” she says, explaining that her parents have been “amazing” in making sure they have whatever they need. “We’re a very close family.” The extended family is renting a home in Pine that’s up for sale and is looking for a four-bedroom home with a yard for the dogs to settle into while they make decisions about rebuilding. Sara and her family hope to stay in the area. “I’ve been trying to keep things steady for the kids, not wanting to uproot them now.”
“There’s not a place we can call home,” she said, fighting off tears. “It doesn’t seem like we’re getting to an end. I don’t feel settled.”
She says her parents are more stressed than she’s ever seen them. Her mom works for Verizon, and her dad’s retired. They all keep busy dealing with the aftermath. If it’s not meeting with contractors about clearing debris, it’s coming up with lists of belongings, estimated dates of purchase and purchase prices for insurance purposes. After all that, “everything is then depreciated – generally about 50 percent,” she says in reference to filing an insurance claim. “It’s hard to remember everything you owned.”
She and her parents attend meetings with legislators and meetings with other victims of the fire. “It’s hard because every time I go to a meeting, it brings me back to the fire – it’s gut-wrenching,” she says. “Our hearts go out to those who lost family members – it feels like we didn’t lose much compared to them.”
Three neighbors perished in the fire, and 23 homes were destroyed.
Under the terms of their insurance policy with Farmers, they were given a check for the full extent of the dwellings as well as $5,000 for replacing clothing, toiletries, and personal items. “That will be deducted from our allowance for personal property,” Sara explains.
They consider themselves luckier than some but have begun to feel like “people are out to get you” and that “the vultures are circling” as they deal with contractors and those who make bids to clear their land. “Others are looking out for their own interests,” she says.
In many ways, times are tougher now than at first, she continues, explaining that the attention that immediately followed the fire has waned. “The support phase seems to have passed, but the victims are still dealing with it.”
With all the meetings – with other displaced homeowners and with legislators – she highly doubts that anything will come of it, referring to any compensation from the state for help with clearing their properties, reforesting and compensating the victims for the pain, anguish and inconvenience that’s not covered by an insurance policy. According to what the Attorney General said, “As far as he’s concerned, the cap [of $600,000 per occurrence] hasn’t been lifted. Insurance companies and IREA are also hoping for a piece of the same pie.
Reaction from the State
Colorado Representative Cheri Gerou would agree with her. “They’ve basically been shunned by the State,” she says with disappointment, confessing that she loses a lot of sleep thinking about it. “The State really doesn’t want to admit guilt.”
Gerou, who co-sponsored House Bill 1352 intended to be the victim’s voice, says, although investigation was a criterion of the bill, the commission will not investigate because they feel that would take money, which has not been allocated.
There is no money. None to investigate. None to reforest. None to compensate.
Assistance was available from FEMA and the State for the larger Waldo Canyon and High Park fires but not for the Lower North Fork fire. “Everyone is assuming that the Lower North Fork fire victims are getting federal money when they’ve gotten nothing,” Gerou points out.
“Nobody’s talking about it,” Gerou continues, “and that’s to the benefit of the State.”
In reference to the homeowners, Gerou says, “All they’d really like is a little bit of honesty. They’re losing faith in their state government.”
“I guess I’m naive,” she admits. “I thought just-ness would be done, but it is not being done.”
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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — Finger pointing, covering up and not accepting responsibility. That’s what some of the key homeowners, who lost everything, are saying about the Lower North Fork Fire.
They also say they want the truth to come out.
Andy Hoover is the grandson of President Herbert Hoover and a well known member of the community hit hardest by the fire last month.
Hoover says he, the family of Ann Appel and others are not happy with the way different agencies seem to be passing the blame.
The fire killed his neighbors Sam and Moaneti Lucas and Ann Appel.
“Ann was a close friend and I mean she’s gone,” Hoover says.
He’d talked to all three neighbors in their final hour as the fire moved up the hill.
Now as recordings of 911 emergency calls and radio dispatch tapes are released, Hoover says he and Ann Appel’s husband Scott are fighting to bring out the truth…about what really happened.
“No one from the fire department came up or knocked at the door so that I could hear it and I did answer the door for some people,” Hoover says.
They are questioning the veracity of some accounts leading up to the fire.
“There was poor judgment in starting that controlled burn and controlling it. I can say for the record that it was never extinguished.”
They’re also questioning accounts of what followed.
“They have been saying things that are flatly untrue. People who are making up stories to make themselves look good… I hope are going to be thoroughly embarrassed when we’re done. And there’s a lot of that going on,” Hoover says.
Hoover lost everything, including historic treasures. “My grandfather was the president of the United States. When I built that house I tried to build it so it wouldn’t burn because you can’t insure that stuff,” he says.
But now that it’s gone, he says no officials have contacted him for his account.
They find it unbelievable that state liability is limited to $600,000 dollars.
“Scott [Appel] has suffered a huge loss and it’s hit him hard and it’s going to take some time to heal that loss.”
Hoover says he believes the timelines of what happened will eventually prove that the truth lies somewhere outside of what is being said publicly right now.
A public memorial for Ann Appel will be held this Saturday at 10 a.m. at West Bowles Community Church.
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