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Colorado legislature to amend immunity act for Lower North Fork Fire victims

8:54 PM, May 3, 2012   |    comments
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They plan to amend Colorado's immunity act to provide a waiver for prescribed burns set by the state. The move would be retroactive to cover the Lower North Fork Fire.

The fire killed three people and was caused by a prescribed burn on state forest land. It destroyed or damaged 27 homes and burned more than 4,000 acres.

The fire started from a prescribed burn set days earlier by the Colorado State Forest Service.

At a Thursday afternoon news conference, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the amendment would allow fire victims to seek damages above the $150,000 per-person liability limit. However, Hickenlooper says negligence must be established in connection with the fire.

There are also broader implications for a future disaster caused by state negligence.

The claim board will have the power to recommend the legislature pay out additional compensation.

In the Lower North Fork Fire, there was an estimated $11 million in property damage, to say nothing of the loss of life.

Adding negligence with wildfires to a list of exemptions to the cap will allow victims to make their case to the claim board.

The state can settle or fight them in court. Without this amendment, they'd never get that far.

"I kept thinking about a saying from President Kennedy, that an error is not a mistake until you refuse to correct it. And it was obvious that Colorado made an error, an unforgettable error that will forever change the lives of these people. It would be a mistake if we refused to correct it. And that would be unforgivable. So I am thrilled that we have found a common path to a solution to such a devastating incident," Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadmun said.

For weeks, Hickenlooper had declined to take a position on increased compensation, even when Republicans called for a special commission.

"This is stuff that hasn't ever come through, you know? I mean, we've never dealt with this situation before and literally just up until a couple of days ago we didn't actually understand, or at least our office didn't understand, all the law that was involved," Hickenlooper said.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, recently raised concerns about the constitutionality of the Republicans' proposal in the State House to give the fire victims a one-time commission. He then helped craft this compromise.

Suthers said on Thursday that their solution must have a future application to be constitutional.

Under the new amendment, if a claim goes to court, Suthers would be the one who has to defend the state's actions on the fire. He said Thursday that it's far too early to discuss what position the state will take.

House Speaker Frank McNulty says he supports the compromise reached on Thursday, but expressed concern that fire victims still do not have a place to voice their concerns.

Hickenlooper says he is open to the idea non-compensation commission where fire victims can be heard.

(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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