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GOP wants to set up panel to repay fire victims

8:47 PM, Apr 24, 2012   |    comments
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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.

The fire burned more than 4,000 acres, destroyed or damaged 27 homes and killed three people.

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

"In the case that the state is found civilly liable, is the appropriate thing to do, it is the moral thing to do," Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said.

On Monday, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced he wants to strip Colorado State University of its role in handling prescribed burns in Colorado. That change would require a bill from the state legislature.

The governor says removing the wildfire functions from the Colorado State Forest Service at CSU provides a unified command structure that will help the state handle prescribed burns and respond to wildfires. The agency currently reports to academic officials at CSU and not state emergency officials.

During the news conference, Hickenlooper also repeatedly declined to say whether the state should lift or waive its liability cap, which will divide a maximum of $600,000 between dozens of fire victims who lost millions.

"I think, you're not a single person standing here who has the freedom of speaking their opinion. You've got to look at what is best for the state. And the issues surrounding this are if that is a floodgate that is opened to all kinds of claims and all kinds of other natural disasters, is that the prerogative of the governor to make that decision by themselves or is that a decision that the legislature should be making?" Hickenlooper said.

"The governor said yesterday in his press conference that he can't do it, that the Legislature has to act. We're here to tell you the Legislature will act," McNulty said.

"You heard the reference to government immunity, which we obviously have, what we don't have is moral impunity. And this is an important step in making sure that the people know when a mistake was made, that concerns will be mitigated," Republican Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman said. "I think about my kids when they say, 'Dad, it was an accident,' or, 'I'm sorry.' That doesn't change the fact, how to we ensure accountability and responsibility if we're not willing to take it upon ourselves."

The fire last month grew out of a state prescribed burn and cost at least $11 million in property damage.

"These families have been left waiting and without a level of certainty since their losses in the fire. We are setting in place a process that allows them a level of certainty," McNulty said.

Hickenlooper's office did not embrace the idea.

"We completely understand the impulse to help the victims of this fire. 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," Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown wrote in an email.

Brown says changes to the liability system should not happen "in a knee-jerk manner that lacks substance or attempts to politicize an already tragic situation."

(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)

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