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HOA settles wildfire suit

by John Accola, Rocky Mountain News |

A homeowners association faulted for a wildfire that raged through the Great Sand Dunes National Monument four years ago has agreed to pay the federal government $695,000.

The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service initially sought nearly $1 million from the Zapata Homeowners Association in a negligence lawsuit brought a year after the April 2000 fire.

Court documents signed last week state that the "compromise settlement" will be paid by the HOA's insurer, Travelers Indemnity Co. of Connecticut.

Denver attorney John Chase, representing Travelers and Zapata, did not return phone calls.

Investigators traced the blaze, which swept through 3,100 acres of private, state and federal land, to a burn pit operated by the Zapata subdivision, just south of the sand dunes and home to about 20 year- round residents.

Homeowners reportedly had used the pit to burn wood and brush on March 10, 2000. But 70 mph winds caused the still-smoldering pit to erupt into flames five weeks later, blowing embers as far as 30 miles away.

The government's lawsuit alleged that the pit, used since the 1980s to dispose of dead trees, branches and construction debris, wasn't properly supervised and should have had steeper earthen walls.

The Sand Fire blackened more than 70 percent of the Great Sand Dunes' 2,400 acres, destroying power poles, utility lines, park signs, an amphitheater and a small park residence. Fifteen of the San Luis Valley's volunteer fire departments saved a newly remodeled visitors center and a lodge just outside the park.

Park Superintendent Steve Chaney said about $500,000 of the settlement will go to the National Park Service to replace funds that were used for restoration, which included an archaeological study.

Terms of the settlement also dismiss all claims against the owners of JJK Enterprises, which the HOA hired to oversee the March 2000 burn at the pit.

For several weeks after the pit burn, as the pit continued to smolder, a laborer hired by the HOA hauled "five to six truckloads" of tree limbs to the pit site, according to the complaint.

In addition, an HOA director told authorities that a "mixture of manure, straw, hay bales and compost" had been dumped on top of the pit, the suit said.