According to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office they are blaming the Lower North Fork wildfire on a controlled burn last week by the Colorado State Forest Service. They believe that Monday's high winds reignited embers from the control burn.
If the Sheriff's claim can be proven it could open the state to litigation from victims and their insurance providers, who have a legal duty to go after responsible parties for compensation.
In a process called subrogation, when insurance companies pay out claims, they determine fault, they will then go back and recoup that money. This happens all the time.
But what happens if the government is behind a fire, as is being claimed in the case in the Lower North Fork? Jan Spies, an attorney specializing in insurance issues with Spies, Powers & Robinson in Denver, pointed out insurers in theory could still pursue damages, but it would be very difficult overturning protections built into state law.
According to Markie Davis, the state's risk manager, The Colorado Governmental Immunity Act limits the state's liability to $150,000 per individual and $600,000 per incident. There are exceptions, and governments can also waive their immunity, although that is rare.
Mike Hooker, a spokesman for Colorado State University, said "By all indications, the (North Fork) burn was done by the tight standards you do a control burn under."
Both Hooker and a spokesman with the attorney general's office said it is much too early to assign blame.
On Tuesday afternoon the Colorado State Forest Service released a statement that contributes to the theory that one of their prescribed fires that escaped control may have started the Lower North Fork fire.
Statement from the Colorado State Forest Service:
“Preliminary reports indicate that on the fourth day of mop-up operations, following a prescribed burn, extremely strong wind appears to have reignited the fire by fanning embers and blowing them into an unburned area outside the containment line. Crews patrolling the area immediately began fighting the fire.
Last Wednesday (3/21), Colorado State Forest Service initiated a controlled burn on Denver Water Board property. The 35-acre prescribed burn was part of ongoing fuels management activities in the Lower North Fork area as part of a service agreement with Denver Water. On Wednesday, March 21, crews built a containment line around the fire area. The actual prescribed fire was carried out and completed on Thursday, with mop-up operations beginning on Friday.
On Monday afternoon (3/26), during the fourth day of mop-up work, a patrol crew reported windy conditions, but no smoke or fire activity as they circled the burn area several times. The crew reported a sudden, significant increase in wind and then reported seeing blowing embers carried across the containment line, over a road, and into unburned fuels. The crew immediately requested additional resources and began aggressively fighting the fire.
As the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office further investigates the cause of the current wildfire, Colorado State Forest Service will also be conducting a simultaneous review of the prescribed burn. Conducting a prescribed burn involves a considerable amount of planning, research and oversight by fire professionals who carefully consider current and future weather forecasts, fuel conditions, and other factors before initiating a prescribed burn. On preliminary review CSFS officials say fire crews followed all procedures and safety protocols in conducting the prescribed burn. An independent panel will now fully review the prescribed burn and the procedures surrounding it.
Joseph A. Duda
Deputy State Forester
Colorado State Forest Service”