GOLDEN, Colo. (CN) – Five insurance companies sued Colorado on behalf of 22 homeowners whose houses were damaged or destroyed by a prescribed burn that got out of control.
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American Family Mutual Insurance and four other insurers sued the state and the Colorado State Forest Service, an agency of Colorado State University, in Jefferson County Court.
The wildfire at issue, the Lower North Fork Fire, was set by state employees in late March southwest of Denver, 3 months before the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history destroyed more than 600 homes and killed six people.
Prescribed burns are set to reduce fuel before fire seasons become dangerous. When set during a wildfire, in the path of a fire, they are known as backfires.
In May, after the North Fork Fire, the Colorado Legislature reached a deal stripping itself of immunity for prescribed burns that got out of control, and removing a $600,000 cap on state liability for all claims arising from a single incident, the Denver Post reported at the time.
The North Fork Fire burned more than 20 homes and 4,000 acres by May 3. The five insurers-American Family Mutual, Safeco, Allstate, IDS Property Casualty Insurance and Federated Mutual-claim it was the state’s fault: “A three-person crew was monitoring Unit 4a when embers from the prescribed burn lit by the defendant were carried across the prescribed fire control lines creating spot fires. These spot fires could not be contained by the three-person crew and quickly spread, resulting in the Lower North Fork Fire,” according to the complaint.
The insurers say the fire was no fault of their policyholders, who have been or will be paid.
As fires burned across the West on the 4th of July, Colorado’s most destructive fire ever, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, slowed down and is now 90 percent contained, state officials said.
At least eight other fires still burn in Colorado, including the state’s second most destructive fire ever, the High Park Fire, near Fort Collins. That one has burned more than 80,000 acres – more than four times the size of New York City – and has cost more than $38 million so far. It has been contained, according to the Colorado University Journalism News Service.
At least five of the state’s nine wildfires were caused by humans, and the FBI is investigating arson in the Waldo Canyon, according to CNN.
In the Lower North Fork complaint, the five insurers seek damages for negligence, inverse condemnation and trespass.
They are represented by Brad Breslau with Cozen O’Connor.