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CO: Why a prescribed burn? Answer elusive for pols probing fire

By   /   August 24, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Sunana Batra | Special to Colorado Watchdog

Lawmakers taking testimony at the Capitol on last March’s devastating Lower North Fork Fire were unable to pin down state officials on why they carried out the prescribed burn that sparked the blaze in such tinderbox-dry conditions.

The Lower North Fork fire devastated Colorado earlier this year.

The Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission listened to testimony Wednesday from six government agencies and two forest-restoration specialists.  After six hours, little was clarified other than that there was a lack of coordination, communication and cooperation between the state’s various fire departments, counties, emergency response personnel, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The fire began as a prescribed burn — deliberately setting and carefully controlling surface fires in forests to prevent more destructive fires and to kill off unwanted plants — by the Colorado State Forest Service.

According to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and a review by the Governor’s Office, the State Forest Service violated its own prescribed burn plan by not monitoring the burn area for a minimum of three days.  The burn ended up escaping and growing aggressive due to high winds and unusually dry conditions.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, asked each official who testified why they believed, during the driest March on record, the Colorado State Forest Service decided to go ahead with a prescribed burn.  The question remained unanswered by each agency representative throughout the hearing.

Following a presentation regarding the effectiveness and historical use of prescribed burns within ponderosa pine forests by two faculty members from the Colorado State University Forest Restoration Institute, Gerou asked why the scientists based their presentation on ponderosa pine forests when the Lower North Fork area is primarily covered by lodgepole pines.  In comments after the hearing she added, “When you have people testifying on forest health issues and they’re not even aware of the type of forest we’re dealing with, that’s not helpful. To me that’s not even respectful to the victims.  You’d think they’d care enough to know what type of forest burned.”

Tom Scanlon, one of the residents who lost his home in the fire, didn’t miss the irony during the 30-minute comment period allocated for residents.

“If  scientists need additional information, I’d like to suggest they should conduct their next experiment in their own backyards instead of ours,” Scanlon said.

He pointed out that, according to the sheriff’s report, the burn boss in charge of the prescribed burn was a trainee while the supervising burn boss was in another location and not present to oversee the trainee.

Another resident, Sharon Scanlon, said she appreciated the empathy extended to the victims, but the residents were “done with that now.”  She called the legislative inquiry a “toothless tiger” and expressed frustration with the hearing.

“The answers have been evasive,” she said. “There has been this beautiful little dance around the answers.”

Gerou also seemed dismayed by the hearing.

“Part of the purpose of this legislation was to give those impacted some renewed confidence in their state’s ability to respond to this and other disasters,” she said.  “From what I’m hearing from the public testimony, we are missing the mark as far as the confidence, and I’m not seeing a concerted effort to answer questions from the public.”

Gerou was a co-sponsor of the legislation that created the commission along with Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.

Yet, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, expressed skepticism that the public was being let down.

“It’s very important to be clear this commission was given five meetings to do our work,” Levy said. “We were not given a budget, and I think the questions are very good questions but those questions require taking apart the whole process of a burn plan, which is something we simply cannot do.”

The comments revealed friction between Levy and Gerou. After the hearing, Gerou said Levy was opposed to the legislation from the start.

“She’s opposed to the whole thing. She came onto the commission because she’s opposed to what we’re doing,” Gerou said.

Yet, Gerou clearly was disappointed with the quality of Wednesday’s testimony.

“Through the whole course of this, through every meeting, you will see (those testifying have) been very evasive in answering any questions, concerns or issues that the victims are feeling,” she said. “It’s almost as if (the victims are) speaking and nobody is listening.”

(This article originally published by the Colorado News Agency)