Changes Recommended to Colo. Wildfire Response

DENVER -- In an effort to solve communication problems among emergency crews, the Governor is recommending that future wildfires will be controlled of the Department of Public Safety.

A review team appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, has suggested that the Colorado State Forest Service be managed by the Department of Public Safety during wildfire suppression, response and prescribed fire.

All other aspects of the Colorado State Forest Service will remain in control of Colorado State University.

State lawmakers must approve the change because it requires a change to the organizational structure of the state and it requires money being reapportioned from CSU to the Department of Public Safety.

On March 26, a prescribed burn conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service four days earlier, reignited and spread in 80 mph wind gusts. Three people were killed and two dozen homes were damaged or destroyed.

Governor Calls For Changes To Improve Communications

"Nothing we're doing today restores the property loss or the lives lost in the Lower North Fork fire," said Hickenlooper. "We help by making sure we're doing everything we possibly can that we don't lose further life or property."

During the initial stages of the fire, the Colorado State Forest Service was in command. Once it was determined that the fire had escaped, control went to the local fire departments on scene. Those fire departments ran into issues talking to one another over radios.

"In any situation like this, you want to have one point of command, one person who has responsibility for all the different sequences of communications. You have all these different entities and you need one organization, in the end, one person who takes responsibility for that," said Hickenlooper.

7NEWS asked how the fire response would have been different with the Department of Public Safety in control of communications.

"Making sure what frequencies of radio you're going to use, how do you begin doing the training and what's a preparedness level between these different jurisdictions; all that is better handled if you just have one entity that's responsible for it," said Hickenlooper.

Communication failures among emergency crews were just one error revealed by the Governor's independent review team on April 16.

"There were a number of different problems, so it wasn't the only problem, but it certainly was an issue that we thought needed to be addressed," said Hickenlooper.

There were also problems with the reverse notification system and getting residents evacuated. The initial reverse notification call did not go specifically to residents in the fire's path. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office admitted the first emergency call was sent to all Jefferson County residents who signed up to receive reverse notifications on their cell phones. The second call did not go to all homes that should have received calls because the company Jefferson County contracts with did not have certain homes mapped in the correct location.

Door-to-door evacuations were also sporadic. Firefighters with Inter-Canyon Fire Rescue went to some homes, but not others -- citing safety factors.

None of the Governor's suggested changes addressed those concerns.

Changes Discussed In 1994

According to Paul Cooke, the executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association, this is not the first time these changes have been discussed.

"We’ve been asking for this change since the South Canyon Fire, 1994," said Cooke.

On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, when a wildfire they were fighting rushed up the side of the mountain. They were unable to outrun the flames.

Cooke said the changes weren't made because there is no longer a "turf war." He meant that department heads were no longer fighting over what the changes would mean to budgets and employees.

Gov.: "I Don't Have The Power" To Change State's $600,000 Liability

7NEWS continues to stay in contact with residents directly impacted by the fire. Many residents want to know if the Governor is going to increase the amount the state is liable to pay victims.

"You're talking about the compensation cap of $600,000; that would have to be changed legislatively, I don't have that power," said Hickenlooper.

When pressed about his opinion, he suggested it might not be in the state's best interest based on what it would cost taxpayers.

"If you change it for one incident, no matter how difficult -- and certainly this is one of the most difficult natural disasters we've seen -- you change it for everyone, and the cost to the state would probably be, I don't know if you added up all the insurance, it would be many many tens of millions of dollars," said Hickenlooper.

In 1987, a Colorado Department of Transportation crew loosened a boulder on Berthoud Pass. That boulder rolled down a hill and hit a bus, killing nine.

Then-Gov. Roy Romer called for the legislature to increase the state liability limit at the time, which was $400,000.

"I'm happy to go talk to lawyers about it and maybe there's something there that Gov. Romer knew better than I did," said Hickenlooper. "If that is a flood gate that is opened to all kinds of other claims and all kinds of other natural disasters, is that the prerogative of the Governor to make that decision by themselves? Or is that really something that the legislature should be making?"

A resident who lost their home in the fire asked 7NEWS to ask the governor the following question:

If the governor were in their shoes and lost his home, would he want the leader of the state to increase the amount available to victims?

"If my home had been burned would I want the cap raised? You know, I don't know. If I was insured, would I want the state to undergo that additional liability? I don't know -- probably not. It's hard to talk about something like that if you're not in the situation," said Hickenlooper.

No Colorado State Forest Service Employee Disciplined

Since CSU is still in control of the Colorado State Forest Service, 7NEWS asked CSU president Tony Frank if anyone associated with the prescribed fire had been disciplined.

"There have been no administrative changes -- no disciplinary actions taken. The U.S. Forest Service review of the prescribed burn, I think, was fairly clear about causative factors in that burn," said Frank.

7NEWS reporter Amanda Kost asked if no one was disciplined because that would reveal fault and could open up the state additional lawsuits.

"No, that has not factored into our thinking at all. What factored into our thinking was the result of the U.S. Forest Service review team's report," said Frank.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office conducted an investigation into the cause and origin of the fire and found no criminal wrongdoing.

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