Wildfire payment agreement reached in Colorado
May 4, 2012
DENVER (AP) — A compensation agreement for victims of a deadly wildfire that chewed through the Colorado foothills in March and killed three people appears to have averted a political standoff.
Colorado legislators agreed Thursday with a compromise suggestion from Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican who chastised members of his own party in the state House for seeking a way to give victims of the Lower North Fork Fire compensation beyond the $600,000 allowed under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.
Some Democrats agreed with Suthers, setting up a potentially ugly political confrontation in the closing days of the Colorado Legislature. Suthers’ proposal was to keep the liability cap but add state-set fires to the exemptions.
The proposal would allow fire victims to seek amounts greater than $600,000 while preserving the overall liability cap, which is in place to protect state taxpayers from unlimited payments in damage claims.
The liability change would be retroactive, so that Lower North Fork Fire victims would not face the cap.
The March wildfire in the foothills southwest of Denver killed three people and damaged two dozen houses, causing at least $11 million in property damage. It started when a prescribed burn on state forest land flared up a few days after it appeared to be extinguished.
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The Legislature generally can’t pass retroactive laws. However, Suthers argued that retroactive laws are illegal only when they burden citizens, but not the state itself.
Lawmakers still will have to make the legislative change on the liability cap exemptions, something top lawmakers have vowed would be no problem before they leave Denver next week.
Assuming the bill quickly becomes law, fire victims will still have to prove the state was negligent in letting the wildfire flare back up. And the state could argue in response that it was not negligent, something Suthers said hasn’t been determined yet.
A fire victim on hand for the compromise announcement, Lantz Trantham, said he wasn’t celebrating just yet, anticipating a long legal battle ahead.
“I don’t expect it to be quick at all,” said Trantham, whose parents lost a home in the blaze.
Lawmakers from both parties were visibly relieved at the compromise, though. After the announcement, Senate Democratic Leader John Morse said there was “a lot of political hoo-ha” surrounding fire compensation and that the compromise wasn’t easily reached. Earlier in the day, Senate Democrats had scheduled a hearing on fire compensation, then canceled it.
“Getting everybody to lay down their political arms like that takes a little bit of conversation,” Morse said.