- By: Marshall Zelinger – Denver 7 News
DENVER – The Lower North Fork Fire Commission will meet for the final time on Tuesday and 7NEWS has uncovered that the commission has not fulfilled its duties.
According to the House Bill 1352 , which created the Lower North Fork Fire Commission, the commission was supposed “to investigate the causes of the wildfire and to make recommendations for legislative or other action that would prevent the occurrence of a similar tragedy.”The Lower North Fork fire started on March 26 after a Colorado State Forest Service prescribed burn on Denver Water Board property reignited. The fire escaped its boundaries, killed three people and destroyed nearly two dozen homes.
“The main thing the commission was supposed to do was investigate the cause of the wildfire. Has it?” asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.
“Not in my mind, no it hasn’t. There haven’t been any direct answers to any of the direct questions by any of the wildfire victims,” said State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.
Gerou sponsored the bill that created the commission which she sits on.
“The proceedings of the commission have not fulfilled the requirements of House Bill 1352 and have not satisfied, I believe, the intent of the legislation,” said Gerou. “I’m really uncomfortable with the way the commission’s gone forward. I don’t think that they’ve been honest with the victims.”
The commission has met four times. At the capitol, it has listened to testimony, mainly about wildfires in general terms and not specifically the Lower North Fork fire.
“For instance, the Denver Water Board, when they came forward, the presentation avoided the questions about the Lower North Fork fire,” said Gerou.
“How many times did someone from the Colorado State Forest Service testify in front of the Lower North Fork Fire Commission?”
“As I recall, it was only once and it was not in the direct way that you would think with the Lower North Fork fire,” said Gerou.
The commissioners also took a field trip last month to the spot where the fire escaped and got out of control.
“My intent with this legislation was to really investigate what happened at the Lower North Fork fire and that’s not happened,” said Gerou. “The state has adopted an attitude where, ‘It’s OK if I burn down your house. It’s OK if I take your wife’s life. It’s OK if I take your grandparents life, but I’m not going to take any responsibility.”
The fire killed Ann Appel, a wife and mother of two, as well as Sam and Linda Lucas.
“Was this commission a waste of time, resources and money?” asked Zelinger.
“This commission was a frustration. It wasn’t what I hoped it would be,” said Gerou. “We made a promise to them, another promise to them that we didn’t keep.”
Gerou told 7NEWS that she will likely author a “minority report,” countering the findings of the commission.
7NEWS asked if the commission has avoided specifics because of fear that anything the finds fault with the state could be used against the state in the claims process or in court.
“That’s the unspoken assumption,” said Gerou.
“Should the final report from this commission state, ‘The Colorado State Forest Service is to blame for the Lower North Fork fire?'” asked Zelinger.
“I think it should. That’s what the declaration of the bill says,” said Gerou.
“Will it?” asked Zelinger.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll see tomorrow. If I have anything to do with it, it will, but I don’t have a lot of hope,” said Gerou.
On Tuesday, the commission will debate potential bills that someone could sponsor during the 2013 legislative session.
One bill requests an increase to the state’s governmental immunity liability from $600,000 to $1.2 million. Right now, the state is limited to paying out up to $600,000 for all victims of a state-caused event. However, legislation passed earlier this year is supposed to allow victims of the Lower North Fork fire to potentially be awarded more than the $600,000 limit.
Another bill will call for prescribed burns to continue in Colorado, but with precautionary measures. Governor John Hickenlooper halted all prescribed burns shortly after the Lower North Fork fire.
Another bill would create a wildfire prevention and mitigation committee.
A third bill would allow a tax exemption to continue for landowners who do wildfire mitigation on their property.
7NEWS will be at the final Lower North Fork Fire Commission hearing on Tuesday to find out why the commission has not investigated the fire.