A wildfire that destroyed 11 Spokane Valley homes last week grew out of an illegal recreational fire that a local surgeon supervised three days earlier on her neighbor’s vacant lot, a fire official said.
The “unapproved, unextinguished recreational fire” was set July 7 on a wooded parcel next to the home of Tracy Berg, who lives at 1915 S. Eastern Lane, according to Bill Clifford, deputy fire marshal for the Spokane Valley Fire Department. The fire was made in an old stump that had been repeatedly burned, which made it a fire pit, he said.
Clifford said the fire smoldered for three days before wind Thursday whipped it into a blaze that burned more than 1,000 acres, caused millions of dollars in damage and triggered the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
County laws require fires to be conducted more than 25 feet from a structure or material that could ignite, to be constantly attended and to be extinguished, Clifford said. Residents also must have on hand a fire extinguisher or another tool to put out the fire, such as a shovel, sand or a garden hose.
It was unclear Tuesday if Berg, who works in an office near the Valley Hospital and Medical Center, will face charges. That decision will be left to the state Department of Natural Resources, Clifford said.
The announcement culminated an analysis by DNR and Valley fire investigators. A DNR investigator assigned to the case could not be reached for comment. But the DNR’s Steve Harris said that, in general, someone responsible for such a fire could face both criminal and civil charges. Legally, the department must pursue “cost recovery” on DNR-protected lands, a classification that applies to most of the burned area, he said.
“You have two opportunities to wind up in court,” he said.
Spokane Valley Mayor Richard Munson said he would support the DNR’s decision about any charges but had mixed feelings about punishing the responsible homeowner.
“It’s just a tragedy. I know that no one wanted to start this thing, that was never the intent,” he said. “However, my heart goes out to people who lost their homes and whose lives will be interrupted for a long, long time.”
Berg’s three-bedroom home with a pool and detached garage, assessed at $405,300, was not damaged by the blaze, which spread rapidly east and south.
Interviewed Thursday evening outside her home, Berg said the fire started on the adjacent parcel. In a phone interview Tuesday morning, she declined to say whether she had a fire pit. A neighbor called her at work Thursday to alert her to the fire, she said.
She could not be reached for further comment Tuesday evening.
“I, like everybody, am just waiting until they do their investigation,” Berg said Thursday. “It’s just been unbelievable.”
She had been cooperating with investigators, who were doing a great job, Berg said.
“I don’t know anything more than that,” she said. “It was so scary.”
The total cost of firefighting and property damages has not been determined, according to the Spokane Valley Fire Department. The cost of fighting the fire was up to $1.7 million Monday night.
Shortly after the fire, officials said they were looking for two children seen running from the area. Later, they attributed the fire to a backyard fire that “got away.”
The vacant parcel, 1825 S. Eastern Lane, is owned by Spokane architect Glen Cloninger, according to Spokane County property records. Cloninger has made headlines in his fight against government attempts to condemn his property near the Spokane Convention Center.
The fire took off around 3 p.m. Thursday. In addition to 11 homes, it destroyed 10 outbuildings, according to the Fire Department.
No other homes immediately around the fire’s origin were destroyed, although the blaze came within yards of some structures and neighbors and others worked into the night Thursday to put out flare-ups.
Cloninger did not returned calls seeking comment.