An $11.3 million settlement an nounced Friday may finally quench the historic firestorm of Oct. 16, 1991.
Attorneys representing two utilities and more than 1,000 victims of the flames that swept the Inland Northwest that day disclosed a deal negotiated secretly last month at Gonzaga University.
If approved by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor, settlement checks would be distributed sometime next year.
The alternative, the attorneys said, is a yearlong succession of six trials to determine the liability of Washington Water Power Co. and Inland Power & Light Co. for fires that consumed 114 homes and 36,000 acres of timber and grassland.
There were two fatalities, one a woman who was six months pregnant.
A report by the National Fire Prevention Association in 1992 estimated property damage alone at $15 million.
A handful of class-action and individual lawsuits alleged the utilities failed to properly maintain the rights-of-way beneath their power lines.
When winds in excess of 60 mph toppled trees and sent other debris into the lines, sparks ignited vegetation parched after a month without rain.
More than 90 separate fires swept through subdivisions, trailer courts and rural refuges, overwhelming local and state firefighters.
Attorney Darrell Scott, who represented hundreds of the homeowners, said he was stunned to find almost 25 percent of the losses were uninsured.
Connie Dixon said she and her former husband have never recovered from the destruction of the dairy they operated for 12 years on Wild Rose Road north of Spokane.
Although their home was spared, the dairy and other buildings were consumed. Damage was estimated at $400,000.
She said they were unable to recover, finally returning the property to its former owners in 1994.
“Our dream was gone,” Dixon said.
She said the shock put both on disability in her case, $512 a month.
When a settlement check arrives, she said she hopes to own a place of her own again. “It might help some,” she said.
The utilities did not accept any liability as part of the agreement.
Inland General Manager Richard Heitman said the cooperative’s insurers wanted the cases resolved because they figured the cost of prolonged litigation would exceed the cooperative’s $1 million share of the settlement.
“They thought this would be a bargain,” he said, adding that the deal will cost cooperative members nothing.
At WWP, Vice President Rob Fukai said the settlement will allow all parties to the litigation to move on.
“I was really happy we were able to find some common ground,” he said.
WWP’s insurers will cover $9.1 million of its $10.3 million contribution to the settlement. Fukai said the rest will be deducted from company earnings, probably in the third quarter.
“There’s a business piece to it and there’s a piece that also has the community aspect to it,” he said.
The settlement includes a provision establishing a $300,000 trust account to help create a “Fire Safe Spokane.”
That money would be used to increase homeowner awareness of ways to reduce the threat of losses due to fire, WWP spokesman Pat Lynch said.
More fires are inevitable, he said. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”
The settlement announced Friday was negotiated Aug. 27-28, with John Clute, dean of Gonzaga Law School, acting as mediator.
In 1993, WWP and Inland settled a separate claim for firefighting expenses from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
The $226,000 payment was about 20 percent of the amount sought by the agency.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo