A West Plains couple faces a million-dollar bill for a fire that destroyed eight homes and burned more than 3,000 acres in western Spokane County last August.
State investigators said Monday the Bowie Road fire, which forced hundreds of people to evacuate, began in a burn barrel in the back yard of Delbert and LaVaughn Nuner.
The Nuners live in a well-maintained house with a white fence on Christensen Road about five miles north of Airway Heights. A sign on their front door asks visitors to remove their shoes before entering.
Someone was illegally burning paper and household garbage in the Nuners’ barrel shortly before the Bowie Road blaze erupted Aug. 11, investigators for the state Department of Natural Resources said in a 122-page report.
Smoldering debris blew out of the 55-gallon drum into a patch of dry grass behind the couple’s home, igniting a fire that burned out of control for nearly four days, investigators said.
It costs $7.03 to take up to 140 pounds of garbage to the waste-to-energy plant on Geiger Boulevard. Cardboard, newspapers and magazines can be recycled there free of charge.
Now, the state wants the Nuners to pay the $1.2 million it cost to extinguish the fire.
More than 570 firefighters from throughout Washington were mobilized to battle the blaze, which was whipped by hot winds exceeding 30 mph.
DNR officials sent the couple a bill recently, said Bill Fisher, the agency’s Northeast regional investigator. If the Nuners don’t respond within 30 days, the department likely will take them to court, Fisher said.
State law allows DNR to recoup costs for battling wildfires caused by negligence. Since 1986, the agency has recovered nearly $1 million a year.
Nuner and his wife, who are employed locally, also may be liable for damage to private property, Fisher said.
In addition to the six houses and two mobile homes that burned down, dozens of sheds, garages, barns and other outbuildings were destroyed. The Nuners’ house was not damaged.
The Nuners were not home Monday morning and could not be reached for comment. A young man who answered the door at their house said they didn’t want to talk about the fire or DNR’s findings.
“We’ll just let the attorneys and the lawyers talk about it and handle it that way,” he said. “They don’t want everybody to find out about this.”
He refused to pass a message to the couple or to answer a reporter’s questions.
Todd Startzel, the Nuners’ attorney, said his clients are “good people who feel terrible” about what happened.
“They’re not accepting responsibility. They’re not denying responsibility,” Startzel said.
Still, the couple is determined to do what’s right, he said.
“The Nuners are going to do everything they can to make everybody as whole as they are able,” Startzel said. “If they could sell everything in their house - all their possessions - they would. We’re not talking about bad people here.”
Startzel said the fire resulted from a household chore that went awry. It could have happened to anyone, he said. “But for the grace of God…”
DNR officials said outdoor burning was banned at the time, and a safe zone of bare soil had not been cleared around the drum as required by law.
Also, the barrel was sitting on combustible material and was within 50 feet of buildings, also violations.
The couple will not face criminal charges, Fisher said. Spokane County prosecutors decided not to pursue an illegal burning charge because of their heavy caseload, he said.
A conviction could have resulted in a maximum fine of $171.