Victims of a late-March wildfire that destroyed 23 homes, killed three people, and burned more than 4,000 acres in the hills southwest of Denver may see compensation for their losses.
An agreement announced May 3 would add an amendment to the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act to include prescribed burns in the list of waivers from governmental immunity. If passed, the bill would facilitate suits against the state and remove the need for officials to individually evaluate claims outside of the courts.
According to the Denver Post, the deal circumvents the two biggest obstacles fire victims faced: the state's immunity from prescribed-burn related damage, and a $600,000 cap on compensation the state was allowed to pay to all victims combined.
The Lower North Fork Fire caused an estimated $11 million in property damage, not counting the loss of life, reports 9News.
As written, the amendment would not alter the $150,000 and $600,000 caps, but would allow the Colorado State Claims Board to recommend to the General Assembly that it authorize larger payments. The state would only be liable in the event of an employee's negligence in starting or maintaining a prescribed burn.
“We all recognize that our immediate need is to assist the victims of the Lower North Fork fire,” Hickenlooper said in a press release. “This proposal allows fire victims to make claims under the new law, and it gives them an avenue to seek compensation in a way that we believe is constitutional.”
On CBS4 earlier, Governor Hickenlooper expressed concern the bill could create a "false hope" for fire victims. The Colorado Attorney General's office previously stated the bill gives "special privilege to a specific class of individuals," and therefore may be unconstitutional.
If passed, the bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2012. Lawmakers would need to pass the bill by May 9, the last day of the legislative session.
Officials who managed the Lower North Fork Fire faced particular scrutiny after a controlled burn there reignited, then spread fueled by "a deadly cascade of missteps" including misinformed dispatchers and emergency evacuation calls to wrong addresses.