Lawmakers review bills to address Colo. wildfires

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DENVER (AP) — Colorado lawmakers moved to tighten requirements for controlled burns Tuesday, but they're struggling to agree on a compensation figure for when the state is responsible for tragedies like a deadly March wildfire southwest of Denver.

A panel reviewing legislation to introduce next year approved bills to implement minimum standards for when the state conducts burns, and a proposal to extend tax credits to landowners who conduct fire mitigation.

The March wildfire in the Jefferson County foothills grew out of control from wind-blown embers from a prescribed burn. The wildfire scorched 6 square miles, damaged or destroyed two dozen homes, and killed three people.

The proposed legislation still needs to be approved by another committee and lawmakers will continue to make changes in the coming year.

Investigators said state officials followed an approved plan for a controlled burn and found no criminal wrongdoing. But victims of the wildfire have expressed frustration about the state's response.

Scott Appel, whose wife Ann died in the fire, asked lawmakers to consider the risks of conducting prescribed burns during windy conditions. State officials have said the forecast did not predict the windy conditions that sparked the fire.

"I would like you to consider as you look at this legislation, I would like to you to consider the clothes that you have on right now," Appel said. "The things you have in your possession, in a matter of two hours' time, are the only things that you have. I would like you to consider that your property is destroyed, your life is destroyed, and everything is gone."

Lawmakers on the panel also considered and rejected a proposal to raise the state liability cap from $600,000 to $1.2 million.

Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, a member of the panel and representative for the district where the fire happened, said she voted against the proposal because the suggested figure "seemed flippant."

"I think victims in the state of Colorado deserve more careful evaluation of the costs and the impact of loss," she said. She said the figure should be higher.

Deputy Attorney General David Blake said some states have liability caps as low as $1,000, while others are as high as $5 million. At least eight states have no caps, Blake said.

State officials have said the cap is in place to protect the state from paying unlimited amounts in claims.

Democratic Rep. Claire Levy proposed raising the cap to $1.2 million.

"I think it does recognize that we have a number that is frankly ridiculous in this day and age," Levy said about her proposal to raise the current cap.

A separate bill passed this year allows victims of that wildfire to seek compensation in excess of a state liability cap, because of the state's involvement in the prescribed burn.

Blake said the state has received 132 claims, including 17 from insurance companies. He said some of the claims are duplicative, but it's clear that they will exceed at $20 million, well above the initial property damage estimate of $11 million.

The legislative panel is not overseeing the claims process.

Lawmakers on the panel also rejected a bill requiring counties to adopt building and development regulations to address fire mitigation in high-danger areas and to ensure there are roads to accommodate emergency vehicles.

Andy Karsian, a representative of Colorado Counties Inc., said local governments were already doing that and that a state mandate was unnecessary.

Lawmakers can still introduce some of the ideas that the committee rejected when they begin session in January.

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