Nearly 2,000 Spokane area property owners have joined a series of lawsuits claiming the 1991 firestorm was as much the work of corporate negligence as an angry Mother Nature.
The first case doesn’t go to trial until next March, but the six class actions already are among the most paper-laden in Spokane County history.
On Oct. 16, 1991, 92 separate fires, mostly in Spokane County, burned 35,000 acres, destroyed 114 homes and killed a woman and an unborn child. Damages were estimated at $15 million.
“It was an extraordinary event in most people’s lives,” said Spokane attorney Darrell Scott, who represents the property owners. “It was tantamount to the day Kennedy was shot.”
The property owners are suing Washington Water Power Co. and Inland Power & Light Co., alleging faulty electric lines and shoddy or non-existent tree trimming.
Wind gusts of 62 mph snapped power poles like rotten pencils. Limbs and entire ponderosa pines tumbled into electric lines, knocking them to the ground.
In all, 86 of the 92 blazes in the Spokane area were sparked by downed wires, fire investigators found.
The fires have been lumped into six general locations for purposes of the lawsuits, which were filed last October. The areas are Chattaroy, Nine Mile, Ponderosa, Marshall, Midway and Golden Cirrus.
“We find all claims of negligence to be entirely without merit,” said WWP spokesman Pat Lynch. “And that will be borne out as the cases proceed through court.”
Washington Water Power inspects its lines and nearby trees annually. Lynch said the company is viewed as a convenient, deep-pocketed scapegoat.
WWP attorney Don Stone said no one or nothing could have stopped the fires’ fury.
In addition to extreme winds, temperatures were higher than normal, while humidity was lower - perfect conditions for fire. The area also was parched by longtime drought.
Inland Power officials could not be reached for comment.
Investigators with the Washington Department of Natural Resources have ruled the utilities at fault for some of the blazes but not responsible for others.
The Ponderosa fire southeast of Spokane was caused when two healthy pines cracked and landed in WWP lines.
Investigator Walt Wruble found that the trees were “well outside” the utility’s right of way.
The Nine Mile West fire, on the other hand, was ignited when a tree that had been leaning directly over a line broke off, Wruble said.
“It is my opinion that this fire was due to negligence on the part of the power company by not removing this obvious danger tree,” he wrote in his investigation summary.