By Tim Hoover
The Denver Post
Victims of the Lower North Fork Wildfire , which killed three people and burned thousands of acres when high winds spread embers from a state controlled burn, could have a long wait before they get any special compensation from the state.
“It’s not forthcoming anytime soon,” Deputy Attorney General David Blake told members of the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission Monday.
The five-member commission was created to examine the circumstances around the March fire, which destroyed 23 homes and caused $11 million in damage. Because the blaze sparked from a prescribed burn, lawmakers passed legislation allowing victims of fires caused by prescribed burns to exceed the normal governmental liability cap of $600,000 per instance.
But before that can ever happen, Blake said, victims must file claims against the state, and all lawsuits under the existing liability cap have to run their course.
“As everybody knows, litigation doesn’t wrap up quickly,” he said.
Victims have until Sept. 22 to file claims, Blake said.
“If they (claims) are not filed, that person will not be able to preserve their rights, and they will be outside of the process forever,” Blake said.
The commission also may make “compensatory recommendations” after hearing from victims of the fire, who were expected to testify in Conifer on Monday night.
“Realistically, we’re talking about many months, if not over years” before victims see special compensation from the state, said commission chairwoman state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango .
Mike Babler, fire programs manager for the Colorado chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Babler, who has worked on forest health since the 1960s, said wildfires are becoming more frequent, larger and more intense.
“When I first started in the fire world, a 100-acre fire was considered really large,” Babler said, adding that prior to the 140,000 acre Hayman Fire in 2002, the biggest fire in Colorado was 14,000 acres.
Babler said prescribed burns, which the state put an indefinite ban on after the Lower North Fork Fire, are still critically important for fire management. But he listed a variety of other strategies, including defensive techniques like cleaning up pine needles and other fuels around homes.
Another major factor has been the collapse of the timber industry, Babler said. With a depressed construction industry and foreign competition, mills have been shuttered, leaving forests thicker with fuel.
He also pointed to the growth of those living in the “urban wilderness interface,” where development creeps into forests. Two million people in Colorado now live in these areas, and studies say that could double in 20 years, he said.
In California on Monday, more than 825,000 rural residents received bills from the state of up to $150 for fire protection costs. The controversial new fees are expected to raise $84 million to help balance the state budget.
Sharon Scanlan, whose home and 35-acre wooded property were destroyed, said she hoped the commission’s work would answer basic questions.
“Why was the fire started anyway?” Scanlan asked.
State Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, a member of the commission, said some people are likely to want the commission to find blame.
“I think we need to work on preparing people who do choose to live in high wildfire areas to deal with that,” Levy said, “and recognize the risk to loss of life and property is very high and that is something they are knowingly taking on and the state cannot protect them.”
Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, whose district was hit hard by the fire, bristled at those comments.
“I think in America, we’re free to live where we want to live,” Gerou said. “If she’s saying that these individuals didn’t recognize the risk that they were facing, I hope that she’ll learn a little more about these people during this process. This commission isn’t about whether it’s safe to live in the forest or not.”