DENVER – Nearly five months after the Lower North Fork Fire destroyed two dozen homes and killed three people, survivors are venting their frustrurations over the long and arduous recovery.
The Lower North Fork Fire burned 4,000 acres after investigators say embers from a nearby prescribed burn grew out of control, threatening homes.
“I know you have many questions…we will listen but we cannot answer those questions,” said a state lawmaker to a crowded room of fire survivors. Following Monday’s meeting many reported feeling unsatisfied with the state’s efforts to compensate victims for the blaze.
“This was started by a group that you and I pay taxes to for their salary,” said Sharon Scanlan, a Jefferson County resident who lost her home in March.
Several lawsuits are already pending against the state of Colorado for damages caused by the fire.
“This was an activity sanctioned by the state, prescribed by the state and there should be some responsibility by the state,” Governor John Hickenlooper said.
“We all know our property values have plummeted because of this,” homeowner Ross Eckel said. “To what degree we’re trying to find out.”
While Eckel’s home is still standing, his neighborhood is gone. He worries that survivors will be forgotten.
“We just don’t want to be brushed off and put into the oblivion of time,” Eckel said.
“I’m really working on that forgiveness thing,” Scanlan added. “But it would be a whole lot easier if we could get some recompense from the state.”
Survivors are expected to meet with state lawmakers again in late August.
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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — Investigators announced Wednesday there will be no criminal charges in the Lower North Fork wildfire.
The prescribed burn that exploded out of control, killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes happened as a result of a number of bad things happening at once, and not as a result of criminal activity.
Residents of the area that caught fire attended a town hall meeting. It was polite on the surface, but anger simmers among people… they’re mad because the reports don’t place any blame the fire.
They had a chance to voice some of their concerns, and officials expressed their sympathy. But that doesn’t mean a whole lot to the people who lost everything in the fire.
They’re still looking for answers about how the decisions were made to move forward with a prescribed burn during the driest March on record.
Four days after the prescribed burn, a warm and windy day fanned hot spots that remained, and within hours the fire had spread to 4,000 acres, destroying homes and lives as it raced through a neighborhood.
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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — After a report released Monday, some home owners who lost their homes in the Lower North Fork Fire have harsh words for the state’s investigation into what went wrong.
That fire burned more than 4,000 acres, destroyed more than two dozen homes and killed three people.
The governor’s report recommended major changes to the way controlled burns are handled.
It also recommends the state change its emergency response capabilities, and Colorado’s congressional delegation is now calling for a federal review.
Coe Meyer reflects what many homeowners are saying.
“If state workers set the fire under any circumstances, the state should be held accountable for the consequences,” says Meyers.
And he uses the term CYA to describe what he says is going on.
The report points blame at four factors, which, when combined, turned a prescribed burn into a ferocious wildfire.
“I think the report was kind of a CYA report,” said Meyer. “I’m 62 years old. I’m semi retired and this was my dream home.”
Meyer says the report misses the point.
“The operation was successful, but the patient died. That operation should have never taken place,” he says.
He says he doesn’t understand how a forestry crew missed what everyone else up there already knew, no matter what the prescribed burn forecast.
“We were told over and over again in the media, on the placards and posters up in the mountains. Common sense—the driest February and March in the history of Colorado,” Meyer says.
The governor’s panel recommended changes in prescribed burn protocols.
But Meyer and neighbors like Andy Hoover, who shot video of his own home burning, say the state started the fire that burned their homes and killed their neighbors, and the state should accept responsibility.
“If a surgeon has a perfect surgery but misses one thing technically, then there’s liability at that point for the surgeon if the patient doesn’t recover. I don’t see this being any different,” Meyer says.
“Get rid of this nonsense about limited liability to cover themselves,” says Andy Hoover. “Because their responsibility in my mind and most people’s minds is absolutely clear.”
We also talked to two state lawmakers from Jefferson County who both said the governor’s report is a good first step, but added that they are waiting for at least three other reports to be completed before drawing any conclusions about the fire.
Wednesday night there is public meeting scheduled at the Conifer Middle School at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the fire and other local issues.
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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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Deputy State Forester: ‘Embers Came From Prescribed Burn That We Conducted’
JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — The Colorado State Forest Service admitted to 7NEWS that the Lower North Fork Fire started as a result of a prescribed burn it was conducting late last week.
“Did the Colorado State Forest Service cause the Lower North Fork fire?” asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.
“I think the answer to that is the embers came from within the prescribed burn that we conducted,” said Deputy State Forester Joe Duda.
The Lower North Fork Fire has scorched 4,500 acres, killed two people and destroyed 23 homes. Sam Lucas, 77, and Linda Lucas, 76, were killed, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. One other person is missing and hundreds are still evacuated from their homes.
On Wednesday, the Colorado Forest Service initiated a prescribed burn on Denver Water board property. The purpose was to reduce woody fuel from past forest restoration activity.
On Thursday, the Forest Service conducted the main burn of 35 acres.
“On Thursday, the weather conditions, the forecast, all the parameters that are necessary to operate under, looked good so we conducted the prescribed burn,” said Duda.
On Friday, the Forest Service sent crews out to complete mop up and patrol the perimeter.
Those patrols continued through the weekend and on Monday.
On Monday, a fire reignited in the prescribed burn area.
“In an area, it’s my understanding, where we had patrolled earlier, we noticed that there was some fresh fire activity burning within the containment line,” said Duda. “As the crew moved up to take action that fire crossed the road into the uncontained area.”
Duda said the crew was in a fire truck and requested additional help.
Should Prescribed Burn Have Happened
In his 7-day outlook last Thursday, meteorologist Matt Makens predicted windy conditions for Monday.
“Did you know on Thursday that it would be windy on Monday?” asked Zelinger.
“I don’t have access to the weather report. I haven’t reviewed the weather data. At this time, I would have to defer to the judgment of crew that were on site that made that call,” said Duda. “We’ll be putting together a review team that will look all the parameters that we considered in conducting the prescribed burn.”
The Forest Service will begin its own investigation and expects to have a report available in two weeks.
State Liable Only Up To $600,000
Under state law, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Law protects the state and taxpayers from expensive liability. If the state is found to be responsible for the fire, it would only be liable to pay a maximum of $600,000 total for all victims to split. No one person could get more than $150,000.
“For anyone and any claim, for loss of life, loss of property, damage, injury, loss of use, even the cost of fighting the fire, the total amount the state would have to pay capped by law is $600,000,” said attorney Jim Chalat. “The check that would be written would be $600,000. That wouldn’t come anywhere close to paying for the damages.”
Governor Responds From Mexico City
Governor John Hickenlooper is on a trade mission in Mexico City. He spoke with 7NEWS by phone about the fires, and the cost of fighting wildfires so early in the year.
“I think we’re going to have several difficult years and there’s no easy way — if we were actually to try to thin out all the forest beset by beetle kill, you’re talking not just millions of dollars, you’re talking about tens of billions of dollars, to really clean out all the forest and remove all this dry timber,” said Hickenlooper.
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