“We want to provide some aspect of closure of these 19 families,” State Senator Jeanne Nicholson said at the start of a committee on the payment. “They should not have to wait until January.”
Three victims of the fire testified Friday morning at the committee, including Sam Lucas whose parents were killed in the fire.
The Senate Appropriations Committee passed the bill seven to zero. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
The March 2012 fire, which started as a prescribed burn by the State Forest Service, destroyed more than 4,000 acres, 22 homes, and claimed three lives.
Earlier this month, the state claims board announced it was willing to pay victims $11 million — over seven million less than an independent panel had recommended. The victims had agreed in court to work with the panel to determine the value of their losses not covered by insurance.
After hearing the offer from the claims board, the victims returned to court and asked the judge to order the independent panel recommendations be forwarded to the state legislature to be approved for payment.
The state Joint Budget Committee has already set aside $11 million to pay victims. After hearing the testimony Friday morning, the committee began to discuss where the additional funding could come from to reach a total of $17.6 million.
The bill must pass through the entire Senate next. Then the bill goes to a committee and to the full House for a vote, before potentially ending up on the Governor’s desk.
The bill allows victims to be paid no later than Sept. 1.
“They will never be made whole,” said State Senator Bill Cadman. “Their path to healing has no end.”
For a bill to pass through the legislative process, it needs at least three days. The last day of this legislative session is May 7.Read More »
Marshall Zelinger, Alan Gathright – 7 News
JEFFERSON 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.Read More »
Two 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.Read More »
KDVR Denver – Dave Young
DENVER — Two years after the deadly and destructive Lower North Fork Fire, Coloradans are still fighting for compensation from the state.
Tuesday, angry reaction from families who lost loved ones in that wildfire as the State Claims Board makes settlement offers to the victims.
In March 2012, the Colorado State Forest Service conducted a prescribed burn that went out of control.
Three people died in the fast-moving wildfire and 27 homes were destroyed or damaged.
FOX31 Denver’s Dave Young explains in his video report how the process of settlements has made survivors feel like victims all over again.
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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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Friday marked a year since the controlled burn east of Conifer was first ignited by representatives of the State of Colorado. Tuesday, when this is published, will mark the one-year anniversary of the fourth day when winds approaching 70 mph fanned unmonitored flames out of control, destroying 23 homes and killing 3 people.
On Friday I had a front-row seat in Judge Hall’s courtroom in Golden where attorneys outnumbered the survivors of the Lower North Fork fire able to attend. The State and Denver Water had 10 attorneys collectively, while another 19 represented parties affected by the fire, including the insurance companies, utility companies and those who lost their homes.
One might think that, as long as these people were insured, they ought to be getting on with their lives. But let me give you an example to make you think of your own situation should you ever lose a home to a fire.
Put yourself in this scenario
Let’s say you had a home in the area affected – on 10 acres worth $500,000 – and you’d been “pretty good” about updating values with your insurance agent since you’d moved in 15 years ago. For starters, the insurance would have covered replacement of the house and contents — but insurance companies generally don’t insure the ground a home sits on.
Depending on the type of insurance coverage you had as a homeowner, you might be required to rebuild on the same piece of property. In other cases, you would be given a settlement permitting you to build elsewhere or invest in an already-built home.
the contents of your house. (My insurance-agent friends will give me a hard time about oversimplifying, but this isn’t meant to be a technical document.)
Meanwhile, you are having to pay $1,800 for temporary accommodations in addition to making the mortgage payments and home equity loan installments.
You consider a move elsewhere to get a fresh start, but your $140,000 lot is now worth only $35,000 because of the landscape, so selling is not an option. Plus, it’s all tied into that $450,000 mortgage….
If you rebuild on your existing lot, you must clear the debris, determine whether a foundation is safe enough to re-use, have an architect redesign a house to fit the foundation, and put the project out for bid. These are all draining, time-consuming, major projects on their own even if you WANTED to be going through the process of building a home.
For miles around the landscape is like a moonscape. The trees are dead — charred black sticks and still standing. The cost to remove them is prohibitive.
You must go out and replace a small portion of everything you’ve lost in the fire. Depending on your type of policy and what’s being replaced, you may be covered for replacement value — or actual cost — or depreciated cost. You find that some things were underinsured or are irreplaceable or you forgot to include them on your claim.
The inconvenience is enormous, overwhelming
Most of us would complain about the inconvenience of replacing a license and credit cards if a wallet were stolen, but think about what it might be like to lose everything you own and what it would take just to put in a claim.
You are one of 30 or more families trying to find an affordable place to live in the same general area where there aren’t 30 homes available to rent. In addition, you’re rebuilding a wardrobe from donated items, acquiring replacement vehicles and furniture, mourning your loss — all these things are emotional and time consuming tasks that need to be fit in around your normal work week responsibilities; your medical, dental and physical therapy appointments; and the typical demands of family. Plans for vacations, golf or even playing bridge are now out of the question. You’re grateful for someone who extends an invitation for a home-cooked meal.
If you weren’t one who lost a loved one in the fire, you at least knew your neighbors who did. You’re mourning the losses of life, property and having a place to call home. Your neighbors have scattered. Many whose houses didn’t burn have had to evacuate for months because of smoke damage.
The flurry of concern and support that initially filled the days immediately following the disaster subsided within a few months. You’re embarrassed to ask for funds from the fund established with donations at the Mountain Resource Center because you don’t want to take away money from others who might need it more.
Other disasters occur around the state and the nation, and other people go on with their lives. But you’re still trying to deal with your losses.
Your emotions are stretched to the limit. Your father dies. Your spouse is diagnosed with early-onset of Alzheimer’s. Every decision you and your spouse must make tests the strength of your marriage, which might have been on rocky ground before the fire occurred. You’re still plagued with the pain of that needed hip replacement that had to be postponed because of everything else.
You’re outraged by people trying to gouge you by overcharging to do the dirty work that needs to get done – the people who think your insurance company will cover whatever….
Your children are needing psychological help because of all the adjustments they face in addition to coping with growing up, changing schools, living in a new neighborhood, having none of their familiar “things” and being surrounded by a family consumed with the post-fire stress.
Perhaps you’re the one who had to drop out of those college classes when the fire occurred because it was more than you could handle with two little kids and all, but now your Pell grant must be repaid because you failed to complete the courses. You are diagnosed with breast cancer. Your relatives are busy fighting with one another, consumed with their own lives and no longer offer any sympathy for your situation — after all, what can THEY do? Life does go on. There are days you just want to throw in the towel.
These are examples of stories I’ve heard from those who were affected.
Why should the State be held liable?
The Lower North Fork Fire was not a natural disaster that occurred like Super Storm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina. It was caused by negligence of the State of Colorado, through which a prescribed burn got out of control. Permitting a burn during the driest March on record with intense winds forecast was one issue. Allowing the fire to be unmonitored for multiple days was another. And then there are the 911 operators who kept assuring callers that it was a “controlled burn” and not to worry; at least one person who died had been chastised for calling 911 more than once. When the Reverse 911 system was implemented, it was too late — and calls went to the wrong area.
Homeowners of many of the homes that were destroyed had complied with fire mitigation regulations and even gone beyond recommendations, using concrete and metal building materials rather than flammable ones and clearingall trees close to their homes. The intense heat consumed everything in its path, causing fire-resistant homes to simply implode.
It’s like a slap in the face that the Governor publicly accepted responsibility in front of the TV cameras but essentially has done nothing to help. While victims of other fires in the state last summer received both State and Federal assistance, those affected by the LNFF received neither. Why? The State’s acceptance of responsibility kept FEMA from helping before the State exhausted its resources; plus, FEMA stated that the State had waited too long to apply for assistance. Whose fault is that?
To that, add that the governor allocated $1.3 million last fall for the State Forest Service to clear the charred trees, but nothing has been done to date. Estimates to clear all the trees came in at about $16 million.
It’s an insult that the Commission for the LNFF held sessions but never truly investigated the fire because “they were not given a budget to conduct an investigation.” It’s a double insult because the Attorney General’s office asked homeowners to submit paperwork reflecting their intent to file claims but then has done nothing to follow up on the process because they say “they don’t have staff” to handle the load.
Attorneys for the claimants submitted a plan to the Attorney General’s office some time ago, suggesting use of a Judicial Arbitration Group (JAG) comprised of four retired judges willing to volunteer their time. The AG’s office initially refused to consider the concept but seemed to be acquiescing by last Friday’s hearing. Judge Hall gave the attorneys until April 23rd to come up with a plan for using JAG volunteers to evaluate losses (vs. claims) precluding double recovery. His words with regard to not wasting anymore time gave the survivors an ounce of encouragement in dealing with the heavy weight they’ve been forced to carry.
It’s my opinion that these people deserve some compensation for what they’ve been put through, and no one can convince me otherwise.
Photos above: (1) Jenny Lucas, whose grandparents perished in the fire after being told by 911 operators not to worry, that it was a controlled burn. (2) Sharon Scanlan with Jack, Ruth and Jim Richard, all of whom lost homes in the fire. (3) Jeanie and Andy Hoover, who lost a home filled with artifacts of President Hoover. Andy was in the house when it caught fire and watched from his truck in the driveway as his “fireproof” home built of concrete and metal imploded. (4) a typical view of charred trees still standing. (5) Tom and Sharon Scanlan, who lost their home and have played key roles in keeping the survivors together in proceedings with the State of Colorado.
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Fox31 Denver – http://goo.gl/WJXkS
Interview with Representative Cheri Gerou, one year after the fire.
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Taken by Andy Hoover as he escaped from his burning home from his driveway.
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