DENVER (AP) – Survivors of the Lower North Fork wildfire are marking the one-year anniversary of the blaze, but they’re not planning on getting any compensation from the state any time soon.
“Seems to me that there’s no leadership” coming from state authorities on assisting survivors, said Sam Lucas, whose parents perished in the fire.
More than two dozen Lower North Fork neighbors and survivors gathered at the state Capitol Tuesday to decry what they consider foot-dragging by the state on compensating them for the wildfire that grew out of a prescribed burn no state forest land.
Colorado lawmakers passed a bill raising the damage cap for people suing state government, but it would apply only to damages occurring after June 30, 2013. It won’t help those people who lost houses and property from the wildfire caused by a state-ordered prescribed burn that broke out on March 26, 2012, killing three people.
In the meantime, those affected by the fire are building a case against the state in hopes of proving that a pattern of gross negligence led to the three deaths and the loss of millions of dollars in property.
They point to previous prescribed burns in the same valley that escaped or reignited. They say two that occurred in March and October of 2011 should have signaled to the Colorado State Forest Service that prescribed burns in the area were dangerous.
Lawyers for the victims said the escaped burns suggest a pattern of gross negligence that culminated in last spring’s deadly fire. Litigation by the victims blames the Denver Water Board, the Colorado State Forest Service, the Colorado Department of Public Safety and seven other agencies and individuals.
The Forest Service, Denver Water and the Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the lawsuits.
In the end, 27 houses were destroyed or damaged and about 1,400 acres were charred.
Survivors vowed not to stop fighting.
“They burnt down the wrong people, I’ll tell you that,” said Beth Semptimphelter, whose home was damaged but not destroyed in the blaze. Insurance has paid for some but not all of the damage, she said.
According to The Denver Post, the state quickly took responsibility for the fire. Legislation was introduced to create a claims process so victims could be compensated above the $600,000 per-incident cap set by the state Governmental Immunity Act. So far, 95 claims related to the fire have been filed, and damages being sought total $73 million.
But none of the victims has been paid by the state. The state attorney general’s office is working with lawyers representing the victims to develop a case management plan to help determine how losses will be measured. Once the values are set, they will be forwarded on to the state claims board and then to the state Legislature for payment. Victims said the process is too complex and time-consuming.
The lawyers said the lawsuits will protect their clients if the settlements offered by the state are too low. Survivors urged quicker action by the state.
“Stop this continuing agony that we’re going through,” said survivor Tom Scanlon.
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