Colorado

Jul 7, 2014 1:35 AM by Maddie Garrett

News 5 Investigates Questionable Back-Burn Done During Black Forest Fire

Who's responsible for damages if your property was burned by firefighters? That's what Katie Dubois believes happened to her property in Black Forest last summer during the wildfire.

She watched her mobile home and her trees, go up in flames.

"When I come out to my property and I see all the death here, it's hard for me," said Dubois.

She and her husband have 40 acres in Black Forest, most of it is now charred and burned.

"There's a lot of death here, and we lost a lot of money in it," she explained.

The damage amounts to close to $100,000, including the loss of her mobile home and the cost of cleaning up the dead trees.

"It was $3,000 an acre, approximately, and that's if we did the clear cutting," said Dubois.

As Dubois takes in all of the loss, she is left with a burning question: Did this even have to happen?

"There's no reason these trees needed to die," answered Dubois.

Not long after the fire, Dubois said her neighbor told her the El Paso County Fire Marshall did a back-burn nearby, and that's what burned her property.

"Some of the firefighters responded to me and let me know that that was the case and they did do a back-burn on our property," explained Dubois.

The back-burn, done on Goodson Road, is mentioned several times in the Black Forest Fire Independent Investigation, which was commissioned by the Black Forest Fire Board.

In the independent report, a firefighter brings up the back-burn, expressing concerns about it in an interview with the independent investigator, Dave Fisher.

It's also brought up again in a SAFENET report, filed by Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey. In the SAFENET report, Harvey accuses Assistant Deputy Fire Marshall Scott Campbell of doing the back-burn in an unsafe and unnecessary manner.

Fisher even includes an interview with another firefighter, who alleges Campbell lit the back-burn with a drip torch and then said, "I bet you never saw that done before."

In the report, Fisher and Harvey both believe the back-burn was responsible for the damage to Dubois' property on Burgess Road.

"I was hoping that the County would help with the clean up of this, especially since Mr. Fisher who was the independent investigator, said that he didn't think it was warranted," said Dubois.

But El Paso County turned down Dubois' claim for compensation for damages, saying it doesn't believe the back-burn caused the damage.

"The burning of this particular property cannot be determined to be a direct result of the back-burn," explained County Attorney Amy Folsom.

In fact, the County can't really use the Black Forest Fire Independent Investigation as evidence, and instead did its own thorough investigation.

"Every case needs to be heard on its own facts to determine whether there is liability or culpability to a local government," said Folsom.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office did do its own criminal investigation last September in regards to the back-burn and Campbell's actions. Three investigators conducted several interviews with different fire departments who had firefighters present at the back-burn, and talked to both Harvey and Campbell about it.

The Sheriff's Office's final report to the County Attorney's Office states that they found no wrong-doing in Campbell's actions and concluded that it cannot determine if the back-burn did in fact burn Dubois' property.

What's more, even if the back-burn did cause the damage, firefighters are protected by law when making tough decisions, such as this one, in the field.

"We do need to give them some protection to make reasonable decisions in rapidly changing situations so they can do what they think is best to protect the public," said Folsom.

But at the end of the day, the Dubois' are left standing alone, uncertain if the government is to blame for their loss.

"We feel the County isn't supporting us how it should be," said Dubois.

She's left with a huge loss, she's not sure should have happened.

"So this was all in vain in my opinion," she said.

Folsom also explained that the County has a responsibility to tax payers, not to use public dollars to pay a claim it doesn't feel responsible for.

Given the tensions and dispute between the Sheriff's Office and the Black Forest Fire Department, News 5 is taking this investigation further, by requesting the raw reports from the different fire departments, who had firefighters present at the back-burn that night, to find out what truly happened. News 5 will follow up this story when those reports are made available.

 

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