One year after Lower North Fork Fire, victims still fight for restitution as area tries to heal

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By The Staff

One year after a state-overseen prescribed burn re-ignited in high winds and torched 4,100 acres south of Conifer, officials have made several changes to address some of the glitches in procedures and protocols that were apparent during the horrific blaze.

But for victims of the Lower North Fork Fire last March, the changes have amounted to too little, and have come decidedly too late.

“The public is under the impression that everything has been taken care of,” said Sharon Scanlan. Her husband, Tom Scanlan, says that in fact the victims have received virtually no restitution or aid from the state.

The home belonging to the Scanlans was destroyed along with 22 other houses. Three of their neighbors died.

And yet despite a bill approved in last year’s legislative session designed to help compensate victims for their losses, litigation and inaction so far have left many victims on their own in trying to reclaim lives decimated by the fire, Tom Scanlan said.

“I’m incredulous that the attorney general has delayed compensation of the victims here,” said Scanlan, who has been a spokesman for the fire’s victims and was part of a group that conducted independent research into the blaze and its causes.

 “The legislature … specifically directed that a speedy compensation process be established, that homeowners could go through the state’s claims board. We’ve all had to hire lawyers at our own expense, and it’s done nothing but delay the process. … There is no justice happening in any of this.”

State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who last year sponsored the bill that suspended the state’s liability cap related to damage claims from the fire, agrees that the victims continue to face a frustrating ordeal.

“It’s been a very frustrating process,” Gerou said. “The attorney general is dragging his feet because he doesn’t want the state to take any responsibility, because he doesn’t want to have to deal with the payouts that could happen with all of the insurance companies.”

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office said that because of the large amount of litigation involved, and the nature of some of the claims, the AG’s office has been unable to move forward.

“The state regrets that the process to compensate claimants of the Lower North Fork Fire is moving slowly,” said AG’s spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler. “However, it is the nature of some of the claims that is preventing us to move … more expeditiously.”

The current total of claims is about $73 million and, according to Tyler, some are duplicative and some involve losses that insurance companies have already covered.

Changes resulting from the fire

Several procedural and practical changes were made in the wake of the Lower North Fork Fire:

• Jefferson County is now using a new emergency-notification system, CodeRED, after the previous system came up wanting. Several hours elapsed last March between the first 911 calls from nearby residents who reported smelling smoke, and the emergency-notification calls urging an evacuation. Notification calls also went to homes nowhere near the blaze, while some houses in the path of the flames did not receive alerts.

• Evacuation alerts have been fine-tuned to more clearly inform residents of the severity of a threat. A three-level evacuation protocol, conceived by the Elk Creek Fire Department, has been adopted statewide. The top level —Stage Three — advises simply, “Leave immediately.”

• A new protocol for prescribed burns was called for in a report by the Lower North Fork Fire Commission, whose findings recommended consultation with local fire departments and a host of safeguards and monitoring requirements.

The commission, which has been strongly criticized by Tom Scanlan and others for failing to assign responsibility for the disaster, was created by the legislature last year to investigate the wildfire and recommend changes that would prevent future blazes like the Lower North Fork Fire.

A community that pulled together

In the days while the fire still burned and in the weeks and months that followed, a devastated community pulled together with fund-raisers, firefighter feeds and moral support.

The Mountain Resource Center in Conifer coordinated an avalanche of donations of food, clothing, furniture and gift cards for victims. The number of donations became so great that the MRC created two lists: items needed by victims and items people were willing to donate.

Area organizations such as the Rotary Club of Conifer offered the services of its members, who were willing to run errands, drop off items or do whatever was necessary to help the community.

The Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce put together an event to feed hungry firefighters at Conifer High School, with hundreds of community members offering to serve.

Journey Church provided two dozen volunteers to help the American Red Cross at the evacuation centers, first at Conifer High and later at West Jefferson Middle School, to aid some of the 900 families who left their homes.

Pets and other animals from the burn area were welcomed at foster homes and at the Jeffco Fairgrounds and Foothills Animal Shelter. Jefferson County HEAT — the Horse Evacuation Assistance Team — worked long hours to help keep the large animals safe, and since the fire, it has had an outpouring of new volunteers.

Looking ahead

The litigation against the state that now includes insurance companies as well as individual victims remains active, and the state has said that compensation as a result of Gerou’s legislation must wait for the legal process to run its course.

Tom Scanlan said that while he and some other victims have received payouts from their insurance companies for homes and belongings incinerated in the fire, they will continue to seek restitution for other damages and for the decline in property values.

“We aren’t going to go away,” he said.

Gerou said there have been positive changes in the aftermath of the disaster, including new emergency protocols.

“There has been legislation having to do with controlled burns and how the state functions in emergency management during a fire,” she said.

But at least so far, that has provided limited comfort for the victims still trying to reassemble their lives.

“It’s very disappointing,” Gerou said. “The tough thing about it is that when you have a state that does this to individuals, we all think we can count on our state to do the right thing. But basically what the state of Colorado is telling these victims is, ‘It’s OK if I burn down your house; it’s OK if I kill your wife or kill your parents.’

“There’s a whole group of people that have lost faith in their state government.”