(From For the Record, October 17, 1996:) A KREM-TV engineer says in a court document that he suspects Washington Water Power Co. concealed evidence about the origin of the 1991 Ponderosa fire, not the entire 1991 firestorm, as a headline in Wednesday’s Spokesman-Review implied.
Five years after Firestorm ‘91, the man who saw the Ponderosa blaze start says he suspects Washington Water Power Co. concealed evidence about the origin of that fire.
Ray Fox’s story could affect a class action against WWP and other utilities over the role poor power-line maintenance played in sparking the fire.
Fox’s observations, which never have been made public, are being reviewed now by the state attorney general and state fire investigators.
He watched the Oct. 16, 1991, Ponderosa fire flash from a tree tip and sweep over Browne Mountain. Before the wind-driven fire stopped, it had burned 2,000 acres and 14 homes in four Spokane subdivisions.
Fox, an engineer who services KREM-TV’s transmitter on Browne Mountain, says that by the morning after the fire, somebody removed the evidence that showed how it began.
When the state Department of Natural Resources investigated the Ponderosa fire two days later, the agency concluded it was sparked by a healthy tree, outside the range of WWP’s tree-trimming obligations, falling on a power line.
Fox calls the report a “whitewash.” He swears the fire was started by the tip of a tree with a forked trunk - a potential fire hazard in high winds - that fell across the lines.
He says it still bothers him that the charred tree tip was gone the morning after the fire. “It struck me then and it strikes me now that someone was trying to cover something up.”
WWP spokesman Patrick Lynch says the utility didn’t conceal evidence about the Ponderosa or other firestorm blazes.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “All physical evidence recovered by Washington Water Power was tagged and has been preserved in a locked evidence storage facility where it has been available for inspection” by state investigators and attorneys representing fire victims.
Lynch also says WWP agrees with the state’s Ponderosa finding. “The tree in question was located well outside Washington Water Power’s right-of-way, and the tree was straight, green and healthy,” he said.
Fox didn’t share his story until last year, when the law firm of Lukins & Annis solicited Ponderosa fire victims to join a class-action lawsuit against the utilities.
Fox replied that the fire didn’t harm his property, but noted he might have valuable information.
In April, he was deposed and interviewed by attorneys for both WWP and Lukins & Annis.
A state official said Tuesday that a copy of Fox’s deposition arrived at the attorney general’s office this week and is being reviewed.
“All this is real new to us,” said Randy Acker, manager of the Department of Natural Resource’s resource protection division.
Acker says it’s possible the state will reconsider its conclusions about the Ponderosa fire after studying Fox’s story.
Attorney Darrell Scott, of Lukins & Annis, says the firm intends to pursue Fox’s suspicions.
Two years after the firestorm smoke settled, five class-action lawsuits were filed against area utilities, including WWP and Inland Power & Light. Lukins & Annis is attempting to consolidate the cases into a single suit seeking between $15 million and $50 million in damages.
The lawsuits represent more than a thousand families who believe the utilities’ failure to properly maintain their power lines led to the destruction of their property.
The case took a wild turn in July 1994 when a court document was briefly made public that showed power company consultant Norman Buske suspected WWP covered up evidence involving the biggest of the fires.
Among Buske’s allegations:
An uninsulated WWP wire on a transformer was the most likely cause of the Chattaroy West fire that destroyed three homes and burned into two other blazes that destroyed another 46 homes.
Evidence was “hidden” by WWP. The bare wire wasn’t disclosed to state investigators. When Buske returned to the line two weeks after the fire, the wire had been taped.
Lawyers were sent out with utility workers to monitor investigations that uncovered damaging evidence or information that could be used against WWP or Inland Power & Light in a lawsuit.
The Buske claims ignited a legal storm, resulting in Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor pulling Spokane attorney Dick Eymann off the case because he talked to Buske without prior approval.
The state Supreme Court reinstated Eymann last June, with at least one justice voicing concerns about a possible cover-up by the utilities.
Justice Phillip Talmadge said that while Eymann should have brought the matter before the court before interviewing Buske, that mistake didn’t outweigh the potential significance of Buske’s fear that his information would be suppressed.
Fox, the KREM employee, still wants to know what happened to the tip of the tree he saw start the fire.
He is intimately familiar with the details of the terrain. He lives a half-mile down Jamieson Road from where it started and the engineer routinely travels the gravel road to work on the transmitter.
When he came up Jamieson the morning of the fire he saw power lines on the ground and reported them by radio. He also says he saw a forked tree that had split, with one of its 40-foot limbs lying across the sagging power lines.
He watched the tree tip arc with electricity and then fall into the brush.
“I saw a little flicker of flame, no more than a candle, and I said, My God, we’ve got a fire.”
Then wind sent flames up the wooded hillside.
The morning after the fire, Fox says, he returned and the tree was gone.
Bill Steele, the Department of Natural Resource’s lead fire investigator, says it was common to find fire scenes altered by utilities when he arrived to investigate in 1991.
But Steele says the utilities may have been just busy trying to restore power, not concealing evidence.
“They are not obligated to share information,” he said. “However, they are also obligated not to destroy any evidence.”
Investigators found most of the blazes were caused by trees falling on power lines, but utilities were found negligent for only eight of the fires.
The state fined WWP and three other power companies $2.58 million, then settled for $226,000.
After the fire, Fox was interviewed by someone he assumed was a state investigator. He later learned the man was a WWP employee.
WWP’s Lynch says the utility’s claims investigator identified himself as a WWP employee and gave Fox a business card.
Fox says it wasn’t until last year that he learned the state’s conclusions about the Ponderosa fire - that healthy trees down the road from what he saw caused the fire.
“I started getting these hackles,” he said. “Something’s not right here.”
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