A Government for the people, by the people…

Yesterday, around 30 neighbors and families attended a hearing at the Capitol on proposed House Bill 32 152, which would raise caps for compensation for fire victims.  Representative Cheri Gerou (a mountain area resident) co-sponsored the bill with Representative Bob Gardner.
I haven’t been to the Capital since college.  The building is beautiful and Gerou and Gardner chose to have the hearing held in the old Supreme Court chambers, an elegant vaulted room with towering stain glass images of original Colorado settlers.  The room was perfect as we discussed our fine state and what it stood for: the Wild West tamed for habitation infused with the spirit of independence formed by a community of like-minded people.
The words “by the people for the people” emerge from the fog of my formative years.  I googled this to recall the source: Lincoln’s famous quote from the Gettysburg address. “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I have always taken government for granted.  I have been of the trusting variety.  I believe in the goodness of people and the promise of our elected officials. I know we are all human and no one can be perfect so I forgive a lot.  I tune out people’s rants and raves about corruption.  When my stepfather sardonically says, “we are the government, we are here to help,” I stop listening.  Until now, that is.  I am disillusioned, I am dismayed, and I am disgusted.  And, I am very very sad about this.  My veil of denial has been lifted and it leaves a painful rawness in its wake.  I am now on the receiving end of our governments finger pointing, blame avoiding and lack of responsibility taking shenanigans.
As I reviewed the day yesterday, I studied recent reports and articles.  Marshal Zelinger, an investigative reporter for Channel 7 and a clear friend to us fire victims, has been working his butt off to uncover the inconsistencies in our elected officials responses to this government caused disaster.  In a recent article, Zelinger quotes our swashbuckling Sherriff, who apparently can’t read.  It begins relatively harmlessly:
“We’re not saying that somebody should not be held accountable,” Sheriff Ted Mink said. “All we’re saying is there’s no criminality that we have come up with.”
I tend to agree.  Even though the Forest Service employee’s actions lead to the excruciating death of innocent civilians and the destruction of millions of dollars in property, I am not sure they are criminals.  Certainly, they were careless and negligent.

From Wikipedia: Negligence (Lat. negligentia, from neglegere, to neglect, literally “not to pick up something”) is a failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances. [1] The area of tort law known as negligence involves harm caused by carelessness, not intentional harm.

Now here’s where the Sherriff’s Office departs from reality: “The reports confirm previous assumptions that a prescribed burn conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service caused the fire. Based on the review of all available documents and witness interviews, it was determined that the CSFS followed or exceeded the parameters set by the Lower North Fork burn plan, and that no criminal violation of the Colorado Revised Statutes occurred.”
Zelinger points out this is all a fine interpretation except for the tiny fact that: “A report by the governor’s office, released on Monday, showed that the state forest service violated its own burn plan by not patrolling the area of the controlled burn on that third day — Sunday — the day before the controlled burn blew up into the Lower North Fork Fire.”  Hmmmm, “followed or exceeded”?  How do they figure?
Zelinger goes on to ask Mr. Mink, “How can the Forest Service follow and exceed the burn plan and violate it at the same time?”
Mink replies, “All I know is they did not go out there on a Sunday. The burn plan says periodic monitoring, and it doesn’t give a prescribed day or time or day or whatever the case is. You can interpret it in different ways. We interpreted it that they did follow and exceed it in the criminal part of our investigation.”
Apparently, Mink did not read the Governors report which stated that procedure calls for 3 days of monitoring after a controlled burn…
It gets worse. Bill Bass, the leader of the fact-finding team that issued the report states, “For the life of me, I’ve looked through this thing, and it was a professionally written plan, it was professionally implemented, albeit one mistake on a patrol on Sunday.”
Albeit one mistake… one small error in judgment.  A decision not to follow protocol even after high wind and red flag fire warnings were issued 3 days earlier.  Apparently checking the weather is not on their checklist.  And, Sunday being a day of rest and all…
That illustrious “burn boss” decided it wasn’t necessary to go on patrol on Sunday, saying that the site looked good and the weather prediction was favorable.  Favorable for fire, that is.  I mean really?
Bass goes on to say, the absence on Sunday did not make a difference in how the fire grew…  Did not make a difference, really?  Me thinks he doth protest too much.
“That would be speculation on my part, but I don’t think it would have changed the outcome,” Bass said.
I-D-10-T alert!
Now, I will go throw up.  Seriously.  We have all heard of politicians pulling their bullshit and the government shirking responsibility.  We have heard it so many times that we are numb to it.  Until, we are directly impacted by it.
The government needs to be free to act in its capacity not obstructed by concerns of liability therefore we have what is called the “Governmental Immunity Act”, otherwise known as “Sovereign Immunity”.  It began with the notion that “the king can do no wrong.”  It makes the Country, and the States that utilize it, immune from prosecution.  And, I get it, up to a point.  If a police officer kills a pedestrian in a high-speed chase, he (or she) cannot be sued.  If the police were not protected from this, they could never chase criminals; the stakes would be too high.  But what if he happens to be drunk?  Is he still immune?  Obviously, there are many gray areas.
In 1987, a 17-foot boulder was dislodged by a Colorado state highway worker, rolling off a mountainside, smashing into a tour bus and killing 7 people and injuring dozens more.
The Governor at that time, Roy Roemer, stated,  “It’s a terrible accident.  Quite frankly, it’s our responsibility to make it right.”
He said the state would pay medical costs for the injured, help bring family members to Colorado and provide counseling. ”I am personally accepting responsibility for the state,” he said. ”We’ll let the lawyers catch up with us later.”  (New York Times 8/11/87)
Roemer went on to make good on his promise.  They didn’t know where the money would come from.  Part of Sovereign Immunity is to place caps on financial liability.  At the time the cap was $400,000 per incident.  Now, it is $600,000 per incident – for all involved.  Roemer and his supporters found a way to compensate victims.  They took the money from the Transportation District.
Our beloved Governor, John Hickenlooper, is taking an opposite tack from former Governor Roemer.  Instead, he is playing the game of duck and cover.  Having glad-handed a few mountain residents in his 15-minute tour after the fire, yet claiming to have spoken to dozens of people – which none of our neighbors recall… He now states his vehement opposition to the Bill, citing “a dangerous precedent would be set if changes are made to the caps”.  To this concern, Rep Gardner responded, “It will be a precedent I will be proud of.”   Continuing in this vein, Gardner said, “Perhaps if the State accepted responsibly this time, they might be more careful in the future.”
Yesterday, the fire victims had our say.  Sam Lucas son of Sam and Moaneti Lucas, choked back the tears as he shared, “I said goodbye to my parents by kissing their 20-gauge steel casket.  An open casket was not an option with my dad”, due to the fact his father’s body was burned beyond recognition or any help that an embalmer could provide.

Just moments before he and his wife perished in the Lower North Fork Fire, Sam Lucas was told by a 911 operator the wildfire was simply a prescribed burn.
“This is Sam Lucas. We live up in the foothills and we just got home and it looks like there’s a fire right at the foot of Cathedral Spires,” Lucas tells the emergency dispatcher in an audio recording released Tuesday.
“That is a controlled burn,” the dispatcher interjects, cutting off Lucas mid-sentence. “The Forest Service is out there on scene with that.”
Lucas: “We’ve got 79 mile an hour winds up here. And they’ve got a controlled burn?”
Dispatcher: “Yes.”
Lucas: “Oh, wonderful. Thank you.”
Dispatcher: “Uh huh. Bye.”
The bodies of Sam Lucas and his wife, Moaneti, were found at the charred remains of their home on Kuehster Road the following day.

I am not going to describe the other failures in the system right now as I have detailed many in an earlier post. 
The rest of the neighbors shared memories of our dream homes, stories of precious and irreplaceable items lost, harrowing tales of the day when no one knew what was happening and repeated calls to 911 lead to a false sense of security.
After I testified, I was cross-examined by Rep. Dan Pabon who was particularly prickly during the entire proceedings.   I described the loss of memories and irreplaceable mementos.  Pabon then questioned me saying, “The proposed bill won’t be paying for those…” I responded, “Yes, we all know that.  You can’t give us back our memories.  Sometimes the only way to make things right is financial compensation for loss.  You can’t bring back our priceless objects.  You cando the right thing.”
The testimonies ended with Scott Appel showing a picture of his deceased wife Ann.  He talked about his unexpected delay in returning from a business trip, repeated calls to his wife where they discussed what she should do, her reports of calling 911 and receiving assurance that all was “under control”.  A short time later, she was burned alive, her remains not found for days.
Responses from the Governors and Attorney Generals office followed.  As David Blake from the Attorney General’s office read his statement to the committee he expressed his condolences re: our testimonies – from his already printed notes.  Not too canned there.  Neighbors glanced at neighbors in disbelief.  We really felt the “authentic” compassion flowing from the higher ups.
Our champions, Gerou and Gardner told us there is money that could be made available for us.  None of us want to get rich off of a settlement yet we see the money as a gesture of accountability on the part of those who carelessly caused this fire to rage out of control.  Most of us are not expecting that Forest Service employees should do jail time, however, we are dismayed to hear that the head of the Forest Service stated, “No one will be losing their jobs.  No one did anything wrong.”
An overriding concern expressed was that if caps were raised for us, it would retroactively screw all of those who came before us.
The fact is harm has flowed from a governmental action.  As Cheri Gerou so eloquently stated, “sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t convenient.”  She closed by saying, “These people are changed.  They have nothing.  Let’s give them something.”
The Bill passed with a vote of 8 to 3.  The next step is the Senate – and if it passes there, it will go to the Governor who will certainly veto it.
We are sorry to those who came before us.  We wish the government had stepped up for you.  It may not step up for us either – yet we will fight.  We will fight for ourselves – for those who perished as well as for those who come after us. The government will screw up again.  Perhaps with more painful financial caps as retribution, they won’t be so careless in their decisions.  And, maybe they won’t take Sunday off.
If you want to know what you can do to help, follow the links listed in this article.  Study and see for yourself.  Then write letters, lots and lots and lots of letters.  Specifically to Governor Hickenlooper, Attorney General John Suthers and Sheriff Ted Mink.  Express your opinion.  Support this Bill.  Another concern expressed by those opposed is that under this bill, the victims won’t have the right to sue.  We don’t anyway!  And, $600,000 divided between all those impacted won’t go very far.  This is a diversion tactic by the powers that be.
We welcome your support.To Contact the Governor, go to: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/GovHickenlooper/CBON/1251592968310

Sherrif Ted Mink:
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office
200 Jefferson County Parkway
Golden, CO 80401-2697

For the Attorney General John Suther:
1525 Sherman St.
Denver, Colorado 80203
P: 303-866-4500
F: 303-866-5691
Consumer Line: 800-222-4444


  • Lauren Byrne
    Posted at 21:11h, 01 May Reply

    Wrote my letter to Hickenlooper right after Dusty posted hers. Or was it Jessica? Anyway, I’m with you and will spread the word:)

  • mama bug
    Posted at 14:15h, 04 May Reply

    fyi . . when filling out the webform on Hickenlooper’s site, choose Legislation for Jurisdiction, then the Lower North Fork Fire House Bill will automatically show up in the drop-down list .

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