By Marcy Stamper
Three hundred people have filed a lawsuit for unspecified damages against the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), saying that the agency failed to suppress four small fires that resulted in the “combined inferno [that] became known as the Carlton Complex Fire” of 2014.
The plaintiffs claim that the fires started or spread on land managed by DNR on July 14, 2014, but that DNR was negligent in responding and ignored offers of assistance from local residents to suppress the fires. They also assert that DNR failed to exercise reasonable care because agency firefighters abandoned fire lines in the evening.
The complaint was filed in Okanogan County Superior Court on July 13, one day before the third anniversary of the fire.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Darrell Cochran of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala in Seattle said in 2014 that there is a three-year statute of limitations from the date of harm for filing these claims.
The lawsuit also asserts that DNR didn’t request additional help until it was too late to prevent the fires from spreading, ultimately burning more than 250,000 acres of public and private land.
The fires caused each plaintiff to suffer damages, “including extensive property damage and emotional distress,” according to the complaint. The complaint does not specify the amount or nature of damages.
In a response filed on Aug. 14, Washington Assistant Attorney General Patricia Fetterly denied all the charges. The state acknowledged only the basic facts of the case — that several fires were started by lightning on July 14, 2014, which merged and were ultimately called the Carlton Complex Fire. The state admits that the fire burned more than 250,000 acres of public and private land.
The state denies that the fire was “abandoned” in the evening. Fetterly notes that firefighters were withdrawn from one fire for safety reasons late in the evening and that they returned the next morning.
The plaintiffs previously filed what are known as tort claims against the state, seeking damages for losses in the fire, ranging from $1,000 to several million dollars. The state denied all those claims, saying DNR is not liable for damages caused by a wildfire when the agency is acting to prevent or suppress a wildfire.
In addition to Cochran, the plaintiffs are represented by attorney Alex Thomason of Thomason Law & Justice in Brewster. Neither attorney returned phone calls seeking more information about the lawsuit.
In her response, the attorney general said that the plaintiffs’ right to recover damages is limited by law, which states that “The department when acting, in good faith, in its statutory capacity as a fire prevention and suppression agency, is carrying out duties owed to the public in general and not to any individual person or class of persons separate and apart from the public.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have requested that the lawsuit be heard by a 12-member jury. No hearings have been set yet.