By Marcy Stamper
Three property owners are seeking almost $1 million for damages to property and timber from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), claiming the agency failed to keep a fire near Gold Creek from spreading to their property in July 2014.
In the lawsuit, filed in Okanogan County Superior Court on Nov. 17, plaintiffs Dave and Deannis Schulz and John Clees claim that the 2014 Golden Hike Fire was burning a few acres on state land but, “as a result of the Defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent the fire from spreading from its land, the Golden Hike fire spread and merged with three other fires. The combined inferno became known as the Carlton Complex fire.”
Local residents reported the Golden Hike Fire after it was started by a lightning strike on DNR land on July 14, 2014, according to the complaint. The lawsuit claims the following actions by DNR contributed to the spread of the fire onto plaintiffs’ private property two days after it started:
• DNR was negligent in responding to the fire
• DNR fire crews abandoned the fire lines in the evening and did not return until the morning
• DNR refused the assistance of area residents with knowledge of the local geography and access to the fire
• DNR did not keep all available equipment and personnel employed on the fire lines
• DNR prevented local volunteers and residents from helping battle the fire
• DNR failed to call in additional help until it was too late to prevent the fire from spreading
Dave Schulz, a former Okanogan County commissioner and a current member of the county’s planning commission, said in an interview this week that he lost a lot of timber, rangeland and fences in the fire.
Schulz was working at his orchard in Twisp when he saw the lightning strike and went to check his property on Gold Creek, he said.
The fire had been reported and DNR crews responded to a staging area, but Schulz said he did not know when the crews got to the fire itself. “I’ve fought fires on that hillside for decades. I could have put the fire out all by myself — which I normally do,” he said. “They didn’t respond in a timely fashion.”
In a statement about the lawsuit, attorneys Alex Thomason of Thomason Law & Justice in Brewster and Jason Amala of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala in Seattle provided additional information not included in the six-page complaint filed in court. The statement says DNR refused to let smokejumpers fight the fire.
“I had a plane full of smoke jumpers, so I radioed in the Golden Hike coordinates to Dispatch, and requested permission to jump. My request was refused and we were directed … to Oregon on a fire that was too large for smoke jumpers,” said smokejumper pilot Kevin McBride, according to the attorneys’ statement.
“We represent more than 200 other property owners whose lives were decimated by DNR’s conduct. This case will help establish liability for many of those property owners, and longer term, we believe the community will be safer if DNR is held accountable,” said attorney Darrell Cochran with Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala in the statement.
The Schulzes and Clees are among 208 property owners who have filed tort claims with the state Department of Enterprise Services since October 2014 for damages connected with the fire, ranging from $1,000 to $3.25 million. All but a few of the claims are for homes and property burned in the fire; a few are for damage to equipment such as saws or tents damaged in the course of firefighting.
In their tort claims, the Schulzes asked for $700,000 in property losses and Clees requested $169,500.
Filing tort claims is an administrative requirement before filing a lawsuit to recover damages, according to Cochran.
Investigators with the Washington Attorney General’s Office denied 79 of the claims; the rest are still pending. The claims are identical except for the damages sought.
A DNR spokesperson said the agency could not comment because the matter is in litigation. The plaintiffs are asking for a jury trial.