Huffpost Denver

Lower North Fork Fire Tragedy Sparks Partisan Bickering Over Repayment Of Victims

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On Tuesday Colorado's House Republican Representatives announced their plans to introduce a bill that has some Democrats wondering if it's a partisan move or truly a gesture of goodwill.

The bill, expected to be introduced this week, would establish a Lower North Fork Fire commission to investigate the fire and pay out claims to the families who were affected beyond the state's combined claims cap. Under the Colorado Government Immunity Act, that cap sits at $600,000 -- meaning that amount would have to be divided among the area's hundreds of fire victims who lost millions.

"That would have to be changed legislatively. I don't have that power," Hickenlooper said in response to state GOP claims that he isn't doing enough for fire victims.

“The Lower North Fork Fire was a terrible accident that no one wanted. However, we need to recognize that the fire, which was started by the state, has devastated the lives of so many families in Jefferson County,” Rep. Cheri Gerou said, who represents the area and is a Republican cosponsoring the bill. “These families and individuals deserve to be heard and be compensated for their losses.”

FOX31 reports that Democrats are bothered they weren't informed that the bill was even under discussion, but say they look forward to working with Republicans.

House Majority Leader Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, admitted that Republicans didn't tell Hickenlooper about their plan before announcing it.

"We're going to move forward. The governor can catch up to us when it gets to his desk," McNulty said.

The fire killed three people, blackened over 4,000 acres, and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes. According to 9News, the fire cost at least an estimated $11 million in property damage.

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency did authorize the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs, that money did not cover damages caused by the fire to any infrastructures in the area.

The Lower North Fork Fire was erupted on the fourth day of a state prescribed burn that picked up when 55-mph winds blew embers across the 200-foot buffer zone established by fire fighters. William Bass, who led a team of specialists in examining the March 22 controlled burn and a 37-year veteran with the U.S. Forest Service told the Associated Press that he believed there was little firefighters could have done to prevent the tragedy that occurred.

Bass cited Colorado's unpredictable mountain spring weather, and that although weather forecasts on the day of the prescribed burn gave no indication of trouble, the wind and heat suddenly increased while the humidity dropped.

“Our goal is to assist those Coloradans who lost so much due to the state’s apparent actions,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, who's also cosponsoring the bill. “If a private company’s controlled fire-burn went out of control due to its negligence, destroying homes and killing individuals, they would be held liable. The state should not hide behind governmental immunity to avoid responsibility.”

But Hickenlooper's spokesman Eric Brown warned in a statement against "politiciz(ing) an already tragic situation."

"We completely understand the impulse to help the victims of this fire," Brown said. "There are no words to express how our hearts ache for the lost lives and lost property. In times of tragedy and great sorrow, we have a responsibility to act with our hearts, but also our heads."

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