By Marcy Stamper
Investigators with the Washington Attorney General’s Office have denied 72 claims filed against the state for damages caused by the Carlton Complex Fire.
Letters sent to the claimants denying liability cited state law, saying “the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is not liable for damages caused by a wildfire when DNR is acting to either prevent or suppress a wildfire.”
The claims charged that DNR was responsible for property damages by failing to control the fire.
The claimants sought damages ranging from $1,000 to $2.3 million — a total of more than $9 million — with 27 listing damages as “to be determined.” The claims were co-filed in October by attorneys Alex Thomason of Thomason Law & Justice, based in Brewster, and Darrell Cochran of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, based in Seattle and Tacoma.
In the brief letter denying the claims — all 72 letters were identical — the chief torts investigator with the Attorney General’s Office quoted Washington law that states that DNR, in its capacity as a fire suppression agency, “is carrying out duties owed to the public in general and not to any individual person.”
“It’s standard practice for the state to write a letter denying liability, whether they are completely wrong or not,” said attorney Cochran this week. These claims are based on common-law negligence by the state, not a violation of any particular statute, he said.
Cochran said DNR had fought fire on state property negligently, which resulted in the fire’s burning beyond state property and damaging the claimants’ property.
Other examples of negligence cited by Cochran include instances where DNR did not allow private property owners to enter state land to fight the fire to protect themselves and their own property. He also pointed to instances where DNR had assured property owners that fire crews would arrive to protect their homes and property but never showed up. As a result, the property burned, he said.
Filing tort claims is an administrative requirement before filing a lawsuit to recover damages, said Cochran. The initial group of filings included about 70 claims, but claims are being filed in clusters. “People are signing up to file tort claims all the time,” said Cochran, who anticipated another 70 or 80 claims would be filed by the end of January.
Cochran anticipated that a formal lawsuit, called a mass tort, which he described as “basically a big group lawsuit,” would be filed by late spring, to allow for the 60-day waiting period on all the initial tort claims. After the waiting period, claimants have three years from the date of the harm to file a lawsuit.
“We have roughly 150 clients calling and wanting to be part of it. I know there will be a large group filing suit,” said Cochran.
The majority of the Carlton Complex claims were from people with addresses in Brewster and Pateros. Another eight are from addresses in the Methow Valley; the rest are from other towns in Okanogan County, other parts of Washington or other states.
With the exception of individual information such as name, address and value of loss, all claims were identical, and all named DNR as the agency responsible for the damage.
Other fire-loss claims also denied
Earlier in December, Washington denied three claims that had been filed separately. Two were filed by firefighters seeking reimbursement for personal equipment — a tent that was damaged in a windstorm and a chainsaw that stopped running while the firefighter was working on the fire.
In both cases, the state determined that there had been no negligent action by the state or one of its employees, according to Linda Kent, a spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise Services, which handles the claims.
The third claim denied previously was filed by an inmate who said he had been injured moving kitchen equipment while providing meals for firefighters. The state advised that his claim for injury would be handled by the Department of Labor & Industries.
If someone is dissatisfied with a determination on or denial of a claim, the individual can file an action in Superior Court, said Kent.
Tort claims are often filed after a major natural disaster, as well as for smaller or individual injuries or damages, according to Jim Erskine, a spokesperson with the Department of Enterprise Services.
DNR is consulted in the course of the investigations, but the agency does not make the decision about negligence, although state agencies must be in agreement about any settlement, said Erskine.
Tort claims are handled on a case-by-case basis. There have been instances when the state has paid a claim in connection with a wildfire, said Erskine.