Co-op denies state agency’s allegations about fire’s cause
By Marcy Stamper
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) filed a lawsuit last fall against the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, seeking more than $1 million to reimburse DNR’s expenses for firefighting and investigation of the 2015 Twisp River Fire.
In the complaint, DNR alleges that “the Twisp River Fire was caused by direct or indirect arcing contact between the branches of a tree and a distribution line owned, maintained, and operated by Okanogan County Electric Cooperative Inc. (OCEC).” The complaint says the co-op should have known about the fire risk posed by the proximity of the tree branches to its distribution lines.
The lawsuit was filed in Okanogan County Superior Court in November. A copy of the complaint was recently obtained by the Methow Valley News through a public records request.
The lawsuit was filed under a state law that allows agencies to recover firefighting costs and related expenses. Along with the complaint, DNR submitted an itemized billing summary that totals $1,036,206. The bill includes almost $162,000 in wages and overtime; $51,000 for firefighting equipment; and smaller amounts for groceries, meals and copier paper. The complaint says the total amount will be determined at trial.
In a response filed in January by attorneys for OCEC, the co-op denied all allegations regarding the utility’s responsibility for the fire. It also denies the conclusion that the fire had been caused by contact between the tree branches and powerline.
The Twisp River Fire burned 11,000 acres and five residences. Three firefighters died and another was severely injured when they were entrapped after their engine went off the road as they tried to escape in blinding smoke about three hours after the fire began in August 2015.
DNR and the U.S. Forest Service began their investigation into the fire the day it began. Their nine-month investigation concluded that the fire “was determined to be caused by the branches of a water birch tree, being a capable fuel that would sustain combustion, coming in contact with and chaffing [sic] an uninsulated energized power line conductor,” according to the complaint.
In its response, OCEC said the deaths and injuries resulted “in part because of critical firefighting errors made by WSDNR [Washington State Department of Natural Resources] personnel that placed those firefighters at unnecessary risk.”
The response says the damages DNR is seeking may have been caused in whole or in part by the agency’s own negligence or by third parties over which OCEC has no control.
The case is still in the discovery and evidence-gathering phase and depositions may begin this summer, Scott Samuelson, an attorney with Forsberg & Umlauf who is representing the electric cooperative, said last week.
They are also examining the list of expenses to clarify whether some costs may be associated with suppression of other fires burning at the same time as the Twisp River Fire, said Samuelson.
State law allows a state agency or other fire-protection agency to recover reasonable firefighting expenses from any person or company “whose negligence is responsible for the starting or existence of a fire” or “who creates or allows an extreme fire hazard.”
No trial date has been set, said Samuelson.