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Judge orders state to reinstate $5 million in compensation to Lower North Fork fire victims

Judge orders state to reinstate $5 million in compensation to Lower North Fork fire victims

Marshall Zelinger, Alan Gathright – 7 News

SuthersJEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. – A Jefferson County judge has ruled against State Attorney General John Suthers, saying victims of the devastating Lower North Fork fire should receive $5 million more than the State Claims Board was willing to pay.

The March 2012 wildfire, which started as a prescribed burn by the State Forest Service, destroyed 22 homes and charred 4,100 acres. It killed three people: Sam Lucas, Linda Lucas and Ann Appel.

Fire victims have waited two years for the state of Colorado to pay them back for the fire that destroyed their community and forever changed their lives.

People say they feel victimized all over again by the legal battle with the state over their fire claims.


“We keep getting burned over and over and over again in a different way,” said Scott Appel, whose wife, Ann, died in the firestorm that destroyed their home and charred their property.

An independent panel of four retired judges spent two months reviewing victims’ claims and recommended the state pay about $16.4 million to 19 families.

However, earlier this month, the State Claims Board reduced that compensation to $11 million, a figure that doesn’t include non-economic losses like death and emotional distress. The board’s members are Attorney General Suthers, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and state Director of Personnel Kathy Nesbitt.

In one victim’s case, the board recommended reducing a $4.5 million payment to $3.1 million.

The board recommended cutting another victim’s compensation from $146,000 to $63,000.

But on Friday night, District Judge Dennis Hall ruled the State Claims Board was wrong and reinstated the $16.4 million recommended by the independent panel of retired judges. Hall also ordered the victims’ be paid for non-economic losses, which could include compensation loss of life and emotional distress.

For victims, the judge’s is ruling is a step toward resolution of the two-year legal struggle.

But residents such as Scott Appel have become used to unexpected reversals in this process.

“I had no idea how difficult and expensive the process would be,” Appel said.

In May 2013, Judge Hall “The Special Masters’ determinations of value will be final and binding on the participating parties.” That meant the four-judge panel’s ruling on how much victims’ are owed would be binding on the victims and the state.

But then the State Claims Board reduced the special masters’ compensation amounts.

“Presto change-o, the deal’s off once again,” Scott Appel said. “Where I come from, binding means binding.”

The victims went back to court asking Judge Hall honor the independent panel’s recommendations.

The attorney general objected, saying any court judgment would be limited to the state’s total $600,000 liability limit for all victims.

In a court document filed on April 15, the attorney general wrote, “the claims board, as a separate deliberative body, is not bound” by the independent panel.

In his Friday ruling, Judge Hall rejected that argument.

“The intent of the legislature was to permit trial courts to enter judgment against the state in amounts exceeding the tort cap,” Hall stated. “The attorney general’s objection… is not well taken.”

Fire victim Tom Scalan has had a belly full of the State Claims Board, which cut his compensation offer almost in half.

“The attorney general is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, he is not consistent,” Scanlan said.

“I am exhausted by the deceit and treachery that I’ve seen,” the weary fire victim added.

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State Victimizes Lower North Fork Fire Survivors Again!

State Victimizes Lower North Fork Fire Survivors Again!

agTwo long years ago the State irresponsibly and callously lit a match in the forest in the driest March on record and left smoldering embers to reignite when predicted 80 mph winds spread the raging Lower North Fork Wildfire through a quiet, unprotected community near Conifer.  Now the Attorney General is again ravaging the survivors’ hopes in court, asserting the State has no responsibility for righting the wrong they have admitted to.  Their story has been a travesty of justice by the State led by the Attorney General and Governor for over 2 years.

May 2012 the Governor and Attorney General promised speedy restitution for the damages done, which included killing 3 people and destroying 23 homes and property.  Then instead of implementing the law passed by the Legislature to provide speedy restitution, the Attorney General brought suit against the survivors only months later in July 2012, forcing them into the State’s ongoing lawsuit with the insurance companies.  This required the victims to hire lawyers to protect their rights, further traumatizing them and increasing their crushing financial burdens.  The Attorney General’s next ploy was to assert the State did not have the resources to evaluate the victims’ claims.  He also went on record in the press blaming the survivors for delaying the process when it was his office that initiated the lawsuit against the victims.

This resulted in  over a year of fighting the State in court to protect their rights.  After months of legal delays a process of binding arbitration was agreed upon by all parties in court.  The one ray of hope in this whole disaster was when the Judicial Arbiters Group, an organization of prestigious judges with vast experience in resolving claims including fire losses, volunteered to act as Special Masters for the court to value the victims’ claims.

The Governor and the Attorney General agreed the State to be bound by the Special Masters’ findings.  The victims had to go even further and waive their rights to a trial by a jury of their peers.

Now that the Special Masters have completed their month’s long evaluation of the victim’s claims in a trial setting, the Attorney General has  blatently rejected the claims in court.

When will the torment end for our neighbors?  When will someone stand up to the Governor and Attorney General and say enough?!  Has the State of Colorado lost all sense of fairness, responsibility and caring for its neighbors?

We only ask for what the Victims and the State agreed to in Binding Arbitration; that we are compensated what the JAG has awarded us so we can finally move on with our lives and put this sad chapter of Colorado history behind us.

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Lower North Fork Fire Timeline

Lower North Fork Fire Timeline

p (1)The Lower North Fork Fire in Colorado, just west of Denver over a year ago, caused untold physical damage and killed 3 people.  Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and FEMA was slow to act on behalf of the victims and over a year later FEMA aid has been denied for the victims and the State of Colorado has not only denied aid to the victims, but remarkably have thrown the victims into court…  Victims that have done nothing wrong.

March 26 2012 – A prescribed burn left unattended by the Colorado State Forest Service burns 4600 acres destroys 22 homes and kills 3 people

In the days that follow…

  • The State requests FEMA funding to pay the State’s firefightings costs.  These grants do not provide assistance to individual home or business owners and do not cover other infrastructure damage caused by the fire.  The victims are never granted one penny in FEMA or State aid.  Their only aid and support is from kind and caring neighbors, local charities and businesses.
  • A few days after the fire victims meet with the Colorado Governor Hickenlooper after he tours the damage and ask him to do the right thing and approve aid for the victims.  He tells them the agency that caused the tragedy is not under his jurisdiction.
  • The head of the Colorado State Forest Service, that by neglect caused the fire, publicly apologizes for having caused it.
  • There is an investigation into the cause of the fire headed by a sister agency in the neighboring State of Wyoming.  They determine that proper procedures were not followed however, found no blame.
  • Victims are told there will be no State aid and FEMA aid was denied because State aid has not been exhausted.
  • The victims are forced to beg for aid in the press, each time reliving their painful tragedy over and over.  Nothing happens for several months and the victims through the media continue to apply pressure on the Governor and Legislature to do something.
  • 3 months later, and months of work while being homeless, the victims successfully get 2 bills passed.  One that promises an investigation into the disaster by a State Commission and the other allowing “the possibility” of aid/claims through the State Claims Board.  The Governor signs the bills with the victims as a backdrop promising quick aid with extensive positive media coverage.  The public now believes that the State has finally stepped up and the victims are now getting help.
  • Victims are instructed to file notices of claim with the State in order to get aid.  Victims spend days/hours compiling their claims to conform to according to government bureaucracy guidelines.
  • 1 month later the victims are shocked as they are dragged into court by the State Attorney General,and forced to join a lawsuit filed by insurance companies and utilities against their will;  blatantly disregarding the intent of the bills for quick aid passed just a month before.  Victims are now told the process will not be quick and will take years, if at all.
  • Victims are now forced to hire lawyers to protect themselves against the State incurring great expense while trying to rebuild their lives.
  • The victims testify at the six State Commission hearings over a period of 4 months.  The State Commission that was chartered to investigate the fire claims it does not have the resources to do so and the victims are forced to conduct their own investigation using public records.  They present their finding to the commission that clearly shows neglect on the part of the State.  The commissioners never call any employees of the State agency to testify that admittedly caused the fire citing concerns for State liability.  In the end… the commission… does nothing.
  • 6-12 months after the fire none of the homes destroyed by the fire have been rebuilt and many never will.  There is still no aid or process for claims as the State AG and his team of lawyers use legal maneuvering to delay in the court system.
  • 1 year after the fire the media with the victims again question the State about aid and lack of accountability.  The State AG responds by blaming the victims.
  • A small group of victims are granted a private meeting with Governor Hickenlooper.  He listens to their concerns and takes notes in a room full of lawyers, but says nothing.
  • The Governor and State Legislators continue to watch the State AG and his lawyers legal shenanigans…  and do nothing.  FEMA has done nothing.

15 months after the disaster;  There is still no State or Federal aid for the victims.  The victims have endured countless interviews in the media and court appearances.  They honestly never want to see a television camera again.  They are weary of driving to the State Capitol.  They are weary of being dragged into Court.  Victims were required to create stacks of paperwork to try and get aid and are constantly being blind sided by legal maneuvering of the State AG.

This is wrong.

We are the victims of the Lower North Fork Fire.

We did nothing wrong.

Why are we treated as enemies of the State of Colorado?

 

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LNFF Homeowners to Rally at State Capitol on Anniversary of Fire

LNFF Homeowners to Rally at State Capitol on Anniversary of Fire

p (9)Dear friends and neighbors,

As you know, March 26th will be the one year mark of  the  Lower North Fork Fire.  have been asked by so many wonderful people how we as the survivors of this horrific event would like to have this day addressed.

We are so thankful for the community we live in and for the out pouring of support you have shared. From basic needs, fund raising events, to a special recognition dinner, children-run lemonade stands,  to writing news articles, showing up at court  to support us and for the many prayers you have sent our way. We will never be able to thank you enough.

As everyone knows, we  lost 3 amazing neighbors that day. It just doesn’t feel fitting to over shadow the grief this anniversary will hold for those families. Some have asked about a celebration, but we are not yet at a place where we feel a celebration is in order. There are still so many unanswered questions and unfulfilled promises from the State as we work at reclaiming our lives.This event was tragic and avoidable. Like any tragic event it takes time for survivors to heal and move on.

How we would like to approach this first anniversary is to ask all of you to hold us and our lost loved ones in your heart. Visit our website please, we will have posted a special “one year later update” and if you would like,  you will be able to post a message there to all of us. We would love to hear from you.

However, we have at a rather late hour, been given the opportunity for a press conference at the State Capitol on Tue. the 26th at noon.  We are meeting Cheri Gerou in the west foyer at 11:45 and would welcome any of you who could take the time to drive down there and be with us; our goal is to appeal to the Legislators, Governor and Attorney General for their support.

Thank you for your understanding. your kindness and your continued support.

Signed……
The survivors of the Lower North Fork Fire

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We are approaching the anniversary date of the Lower North Fork Fire

We are approaching the anniversary date of the Lower North Fork Fire

roy

Roy Johnson has been a fire fighter for 20 years and and qualified as a wild land fire fighter since 2002.  Roy grew up on Kuehster Road where his family called it home in 1946.   

We are approaching the anniversary date of the Lower North Fork Fire.  This fire occurred March 26th, 2012.  26 structures were lost and three people died as result of this fire.  The victims of this fire in no way want to diminish the severity of the other tragedies that struck Colorado and the nation in 2012, but our fire has one aspect that the other tragedies do not.  This fire was caused by employees of the state acting in an official capacity.  To date the state has paid lip service to saying how sorry they are and what they are doing to try and prevent it from ever happening again, but they have put up road block after road block to prevent any compensation from going to the victims of the fire.

The assault on the victim’s claims for justice is led by Attorney General John Suthers.  The legislature and Governor John Hickenlooper  made a grand showing with the passage of two bills in May of 2012. These bills created the Lower North Fork Fire commission to investigate the fire and removed the $600,000 dollar statutory cap for the states liability.

The LNFF commission investigated everything but the cause of the fire and the states culpability due to negligence of its employees.  The attorney general has actively stood in the way of victims receiving any compensation through the claims commission set up by the legislature.   He has further asserted that the cap being raised from $600,000 does not mean the state has to compensate victims only that it can if the legislature so approves.  The majority of victims mistakenly thought that when the caps were raised and the commission was set up that they would get a fair hearing in front of the claims board and be compensated for the taking of their property by the state.

Bill Finger an attorney representing many of the victims has summed up the States position as follows:  “The AG on behalf of the State is trying to force property owners into taking very limited amounts when the actual injuries are well above 20 million dollars.  The State doesn’t want to pay the cost of land remediation and devaluation of property values.  It wants to make token payments.  The claims board where you filed claims has to date refused to evaluate the individual claims and make a recommendation to the legislature, which was the intended process.  This is government not doing its job and playing a game of delay and not honoring its commitment to the persons it harmed.  John Suthers is on the claim board and so is the Executive Director of the Department of Personnel and Administration, the agency that is supposed to do claims adjustment and also the agency in which the claims board is housed.

They are all in bed with one another to deprive you of fairness and justice.  They realize that the Court process is slow, and even though they have said $600,000 has been authorized for payment there has been no effort to pay this amount into any account, including an interest bearing account.”

The governor and legislature have passively stood by as nothing has moved forward.

The facts leading up to the fire paint a dismal picture of the failure of a state agency to fulfill its mandate to serve the best interest of the citizens of Colorado.  The pertinent facts are:

1)  The Colorado State Forest Service thought it was a good idea to burn masticated fuel in an experimental burn.  Considerable evidence was available that suggested that fire in masticated fuels was difficult to extinguish and “overhaul” after a fire.  The state saw fit to try the experiment anyway.

2) The Colorado State Forest Service didn’t wait for ideal conditions to perform this risky experiment but decided to do it in the middle of a drought in the driest March on record.  A private land owner must have 3 inches of snow to do any agricultural burning in Jefferson County.  There is nothing but south facing, heavily wood, and extremely steep terrain between where the prescribed burn took place and where the devastation took place on Kuehster Road.  March 2012 being the driest March on record, there was essentially no snow on these mountain slopes.

3) The number of their own policies and recommendation by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group that were violated would take too long to outline in this forum but the key violation was that even if a fire was conducted in ideal circumstances (which this one was not) the forest service’s own documents require the fire to be monitored for four days.     In the most dangerous condition related to wildfire and a fire being conducted in a fuel with unknown burning characteristics, the officials of the State of Colorado saw fit to send a trainee to monitor the fire unsupervised and on his recommendation leave the fire unattended for 44+ hours.

Given the states culpability in this disaster one would think that they would go out of their way to make it right to the victims.  The exact opposite has happened.  This is a non-partisan call to action.  Suthers is republican and the legislature and governor are democrats.  With the exception of Representative Cheri Gerou, ( who should challenge Gov. Hickenlooper for the Governorship) the politician of the state have been missing in action. The electorate of the state needs to remember this in the next election cycle.  This could happen to you.

Roy Johnson

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North Fork Ashes: Balance

North Fork Ashes: Balance

Re-posted with Permission –  http://northforkashes.blogspot.com/2012/10/balance.html

Balance

Balance. What is that?

As kids we worked and worked, skinned our knees and punished our resilient little bodies until that instant when we got balance. It was magical. It opened up a new world to us. The bicycle seemed to stand up on its own having granted us absolution through the self inflicted scrapes and bruises. We sailed effortlessly into new realms and had access to new sets of friends and experiences. You either had it or you didn’t. It was black and white. But it was the thing itself that we wanted and all that it provided.

Today, as adults, we speak of balance. We get that misty look in our eye and speak of achieving it in the same way we experienced it as children. But it is less of the “thing” that we desire. It is more of an avoidance of the pain of not having it that is the allure. The balance we seek as “grown ups” is more nebulous. It is all too obvious when it is absent, and more taken for granted and ignored when it is present. And, it is never black and white – you never get it and never have to worry about whether it is present or not. It required constant vigilance… at least that is true for me.

It has been 6 months or so since the State burned down our house. I don’t say that with a sneer or venom. It is simply fact, and one I don’t want people to forget. And in the “balance”, they have done very little to even the scales. So, we work and work at what amounts to another full time job trying to set our lives straight again. Recently, many things have gone well for us and we may actually have a place to live and call our own. It is in sight. But we are tapped out, our knees are skinned and we are bruised. If we relied on the illusive balance to achieve the things we have to this point, I am afraid we would not be nearly as far along as we are. Maybe to us balance is that position on the razors’ edge between sanity and a clean slice away from it. Maybe there is no such thing and it is some fantasy destination that is far less tangible than riding a bike.

For me, as I sit here writing this in Seattle on this project that has been the most challenging and stressful thing I have ever undertaken, I realize that if this did not push me out of “balance” there would be no growth. I suppose the edge of exhaustion is not good either, but who is to say. Do I rely on some nebulous destination called “balance” to tell me or do I just go for it and achieve what I can until I don’t want to any more. I am fairly certain I will never arrive and start sailing along effortlessly. I am even more sure that there is no such thing as “balance” in the way we use the word as adults. It is only some fantasy of arrival that we have created that can never really be achieved. We should create new language for what it is that we really want. Call it rest, or a time out, or being lazy or being highly motivated…. You name it. But balance as we use the word literally does not exist in reality.

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