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.