December 5, 2008 in City

Residents who lost property in Valley fire sue surgeon, teen

Lawsuit makes note of burn ban
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 

Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Michael Babinski, James and Margaret Troske, Ronald and Ann Norman, John and Louisa Reid, David M. Hill, James W. and Lorna G. Emerich, Richard and Rebecca Bates, Sean Duncan, Vanessa Acosta Garcia, Sergey and Lyudmila Larkin, Robert and Benita Galland, Rita G. Deviny, Ted and Mabel Hansen, and the estate of Jerry L. Stone.

People who lost homes and other property to a massive fire this summer are suing the woman who’s been blamed for it.

More than 20 people are listed as plaintiffs against Tracy Berg, a surgeon at Sacred Heart Medical Center, and the 16-year-old boy Berg allowed to set a recreational fire in an old tree stump near her home on South Eastern Road.

The fire the boy started July 7 smoldered for days before high winds July 10 sparked flames that grew into the 1,000-acre Valley View fire. The blaze burned 11 homes and cost more than $3 million to fight, according to a report by the state Department of National Resources.

The state forwarded its report to the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office to determine if criminal charges will be filed. The state had issued a burn ban a week before Berg allowed the boy to start the fire in the stump, which she told investigators her family had used as a fire pit since 1995.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. Two of the plaintiffs lost homes; the others had their homes or properties damaged by the fire, according to the lawsuit.

“Instead of having the beautiful acreage where they’re going to build a dream home, they have a property where there’s not a single thing living,” said Darrell Scott, lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Berg directed questions to Seattle lawyer Tammy L. Williams, who was not available for comment Thursday afternoon. Berg has retained investigators to conduct her own inquiry as to how the fire started.

It’s the second lawsuit against Berg related to the fire. Architect Glen Cloninger, who owns the property where the fire pit was located, sued her for $75,000 after the Spokane Valley Fire Department said in July she had allowed the boy to start the fire. Berg said she didn’t realize until after the fire that the pit was on Cloninger’s undeveloped property.

That lawsuit is pending.

The 10-page lawsuit filed by Scott on Tuesday accuses Berg of “openly, notoriously, continuously, uninterruptedly” using a portion of Cloninger’s property for bonfires and burn piles that eventually erupted in the devastating blaze.

It emphasizes the burn ban issued June 30.

“This particular fire is an occasion to help educate the Spokane community about the dangers and the consequences of ignoring efforts by fire prevention agencies,” Scott said. “If ignoring burning bans is something that is taken lightly, there will be worse occasions in this community, with certainty.”

Neighbors told DNR investigators they had long been worried about the size of fires in Berg’s fire pit, according to the DNR report.

Michael Babinski, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he smelled smoke in the days before the Valley View fire and had a neighbor who had complained several times about Berg’s burning.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: James and Margaret Troske, Ronald and Ann Norman, John and Louisa Reid, David M. Hill, James W. and Lorna G. Emerich, Richard and Rebecca Bates, Sean Duncan, Vanessa Acosta Garcia, Sergey and Lyudmila Larkin, Robert and Benita Galland, Rita G. Deviny, Ted and Mabel Hansen, and the estate of Jerry L. Stone.

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com.


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