After the Fire, Who’s Helping Whom? Part 2

After the Fire, Who’s Helping Whom? Part 2

Linda Kirkpatrick | 10 September 2012 –

There’s hardly a soul who wouldn’t agree it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to lose everything you own.  No house to go back to.  No favorite things you’ve accumulated from special trips or family treasures you’ve inherited.  No junk drawers you always meant to clean out someday.  “Gone up in smoke” has taken on real meaning to families who lost their homes in the Lower North Fork Fire that occurred in late March.

On the fifth day after a “controlled burn” by the Colorado State Forest Service, extremely high velocity winds whipped up embers and carried them great distances.

By 5:02 pm on March 26th, Reverse 911 calls were going out – but not necessarily to those living in the endangered area.  And by sometime between 5:15 and 6 pm, 23 homes had been destroyed and 3 people were dead.

Some homeowners never did get a call to evacuate.  Those calling 911 earlier – including the 3 who perished – had been assured it was a “prescribed burn,” and some were reportedly chastised for calling more than once.  “No one was called back to correct the error and warned to get out,” Sharon points out.

Sharon’s evacuation process

With a panoramic view of the Continental Divide, Sharon Scanlan had watched with concern from her windows. She had suspected the fire danger but believed firefighters would arrive to defend her home and those of her neighbors along Kuehster Road, east of Conifer.  Being familiar with what a homeowner should do to help those fighting a fire, she’d already moved furniture away from windows, raised the blinds, filled the tubs with water, and turned off the propane at the tank, hooked up three hoses to outside spigots and left a note on the door for the firefighters.

Embers ignited like a fireworks display gone awry, and were fanned by extraordinary winds of 70 mph or more, traveling two miles  in just 12 minutes over “incredibly rugged canyons and gorges on increasingly steeper terrain.”

Kuehster Road – two miles away, as the crow flies, from the burn point where the evacuation notice was triggered – was the first road for the firefighters to gain access to attempt subduing the fire.

A friend, who was a firefighter, had phoned Sharon to say the flames had gotten out of control and that she should get out as quickly as possible.  She was one who did not get an official call to evacuate.

“At the last minute when I saw enormous plumes of brown smoke – trees burning – from one window, I  knew I had to get out right then,” she said recently.

She managed to gather up her two parrots, a canary, and a dog before hitching the trailer to the truck and then loading her two horses aboard.   “I remember my knees shaking,” she recalled.  “The horses were in absolute panic, seeing flames and hearing the roar of this ‘freight train’ of fire.”  When she’d traveled just a half-mile from her driveway, she realized that her house had likely burned.

It was that quick.

She bitterly chuckled over her illusion of the home being defended and the note left on the door for the firefighters…. it was a foregone conclusion that there was no fighting this fire.

The day we met at her homesite, one could see portions of the integrated concrete form construction, most of which had crumbled in the intense heat.  The structure – thought to be fire resistant – was incinerated, leaving but a handful of identifiable items when later straining the ashes through a mesh screen.  Sharon continues to sift through remnants of the high-temperature burn that incinerated her belongings, hoping to find something that belonged to her mother, who died just a month before the fire.  Although unlikely, she holds out some hope.

The fire consumed her two barns – one of them metal.  In the intense heat, the metal buckled, and combustion ignited the contents within.  The 50-foot I-beam in their fire-resistent home buckled too.

She points to the dead trees, now blackened sticks silhouetted against Colorado’s bright blue sky, and says that her husband looks like he’s just come out of a coal mine after working at cutting the burned trees.  “He comes out black from head to toe,” she says.

Homeowners have been advised that those trees still standing will be more susceptible to beetle kill and that noxious weeds will move in in abundance after a fire.

Sharon’s husband, Tom, was in Los Angeles on business the day of the horrific event and knew nothing about the fire in his neighborhood until he retrieved messages from Sharon later that evening.

Working with the State

Tom Scanlan, an aerospace consultant, has been spearheading the efforts with other homeowners in communicating with the Commission set up by the governor.  It’s become the primary function of his life, it seems.

Armed with copies of every pertinent public record he and a small team of neighbors have been able to acquire, Tom has put together timelines and copies of documents that point to the chain of events that permitted the fire to occur.

Although the Commission is charged with investigating the disaster and making recommendations to the legislature in January on how to prevent such an occurrence ever happening under similar circumstances, “they have not called a single witness from the Colorado State Forest Service who started the burn, or the Denver Water Board who contracted for the burn,” Sharon says.

In talking with victims of the fire, there seems to be a growing feeling that the state hopes they (the victims) will get tired of the process, give up the fight and go away.

The victims are taking days out of their weeks to help the State, it seems.  ButWHO’S HELPING THEM? I asked….

Sharon carefully chose her words in response:  “The Commission has failed to fulfill their charter, which was to investigate the cause of the Lower North Fork Fire and the impact on the victims; instead, focusing on the forest health and general wildfire issues, the requirements of the bill have been ignored.”

Commission member Sen. Jeanne Nicholson explained in an email, “The commission is charged with determining what the state needs to do to try to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.  That process is on a fast track to prepare us for the 2013 legislative session.  We need to prepare bills to be considered during the session that we hope will prevent a similar tragedy.

“On a parallel track is the process to provide compensation for the victims if and when the court determines that their losses were caused because the State was negligent in the way the prescribed burn was managed.

“A separate piece of legislation provides for this process and would not have been available if the legislature had not passed the legislation in the 2012 session.  Prior to 2012 the state statute that covers claims against the State when the State is negligent did not include prescribed burns, now it does and the 2012 legislation made claims associated with prescribed burns retroactive to give the victims of the Lower North Fork Fire an opportunity to file claims.

“The legislative branch has done its work to respond to the tragedy by giving the victims a judicial process for applying for compensation and now it is up to the Judicial branch to do its work which will begin after September 22 when all the claims have been filed.

“…as you know the American system of justice always assumes innocence until proven guilty and the Judicial Branch of our form of government’s is required to use its own process to prove guilt and if proven determine the punishment.”

The State of Colorado accepted responsibility for the fire on June 3rd. Despite wording in HB 1361, which provided the victims with a timely claims board process, “The Attorney General is forcing the victims into a now lengthy, long-drawn-out litigation with the insurance companies and IREA,” Sharon says.  A trial must take place before any settlements can be made.

Like paying for a dead horse, homeowners must continue to make their monthly mortgage payments on homes that no longer exist.  Insurance companies are providing displaced homeowners with rent money to live elsewhere while months pass.  Although it does not seem to have been Gov. Hickenlooper’s intent, nor that of the legislature, to make life difficult for fire victims, homeowners have been told by the Commission it may take years to see any resolution.

Meanwhile, the only real assistance fire victims are getting is from the Mountain Resource Center, through which private donations have been funneled.  Most of the money is being used for counseling as victims struggle with reality.

What we can do

It’s time we, as friends and neighbors, help put pressure on the State of Colorado, starting with Governor Hickenlooper.  Remind him that we have no intentions of forgetting the tragedy because it could well have been us.  Urge him to appropriately use every resource the State has to take care of those who are victims of the Lower North Fork Fire as expeditiously as possible and to give them encouraging signs along the way that they are not being forgotten.   Click here to email Gov. Hickenlooper via his Chief of Staff. Or send your letters to:






You might also email legislators serving on the Commission:

Senator Ellen Roberts

Representative Cheri Gerou

Senator Jeanne Nicholson

Representative Claire Levy

James Davis, Director, Colorado Dept. of Public Safety

Bo Pogue, Legislative Council Staff


Stay tuned for more information on how you can help.

Twitter photo from the air, photographer Cody Crouch

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