GOP: Set Up Panel To Pay Colo. Wildfire Victims

April 26, 2012

Republicans want to create a commission to pay victims of a wildfire southwest of Denver, Colo. that killed three people and damaged two dozen homes, lawmakers said.

A bill expected to be introduced this week would establish the commission, which would hold hearings to investigate how the wildfire happened and establish a claims process.

But several questions about how the bill would work remain unanswered, including who would be part of the commission, or how the state would approve the claims and for how much.

Investigators have said there was no criminal wrongdoing surrounding the wildfire last month. It grew out of a state prescribed burn and cost at least $11 million in property damage. Under law, the state’s liability for paying for property damage when found negligent is capped at $600,000.

Colorado Forrest Service is reporting as many as nine claims of intent to sue have been filed following the Lower North Fork Fire in March.

“I’ve heard from a lot of my constituents. They’re scared, they’re devastated. Mostly they’re disappointed,” said Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, a bill sponsor who represents the area in Jefferson County where the blaze known as the Lower North Fork Fire happened.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper did not embrace the idea.

“In times of tragedy and great sorrow, we have a responsibility to act with our hearts, but also our heads,” said Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown. “The state law limiting liability exists for a reason. Without the limits, local governments throughout Colorado would be forced to carry insurance policies to pay potential damages.”

Those policies would be funded by taxpayers, Brown said.

“Perhaps that’s a change Colorado should consider, but certainly not in a knee-jerk manner that lacks substance or attempts to politicize an already tragic situation,” he said.

Whatever money the state pays in claims would come from the general fund, said El Paso County Republican Rep. Bob Gardner, a sponsor of the bill. He said the claims process created by the bill would be separate from government liability law that caps reimbursement to $600,000.

Democratic lawmakers said Republicans did not consult them on their proposal.

“Since I haven’t seen the Republican bill, or even heard about it until this afternoon, it’s impossible to comment on its specifics,” said Democratic Rep. Claire Levy of Boulder.

The Republicans’ idea comes a day after Hickenlooper announced a reorganization of the Colorado State Forest Service, which was overseeing the prescribed burn. The plan, which needs legislative approval, is to have the agency’s wildfire management functions and the state Division of Emergency Management report to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Currently, the State Forest Service is part of Colorado State University and reports to academic officials.

Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said Hickenlooper’s proposal “falls short.”

“The cost, the loss of life must be addressed,” McNulty said.

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