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State faults BNSF trains for costly fires last summer

Sat., July 19, 2008

The state of Washington blames Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway locomotives for starting six blazes along its tracks that grew into a 365-acre complex of wildfires last summer.

The fires destroyed one home and millions of dollars in timber southwest of Spokane.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources is preparing to submit a $460,000 bill for firefighting costs to the railroad for the Aug. 11, 2007, fire, while 10 property owners say they are lining up to sue for unspecified damages if current private settlement negotiations fail.

Super-heated carbon particles – emitted that day from the exhaust stacks of westbound BNSF locomotives – are believed to have started one fire in Spokane and five more over a 10-mile stretch of railroad right-of-way that follows the Cheney-Spokane Road through the community of Marshall, a new state report says.

Fire District 3 volunteer firefighter Scott Simmons, who was away camping that weekend with his wife and two sons, returned to find the family’s home and its contents in ruins.

The family’s loss included an estimated $1.3 million worth of timber that surrounded their home on six acres overlooking the community of Marshall.

“It’s devastating. We lost everything,” Simmons said Friday as a bulldozer continued landscaping property around a replacement home he largely built himself. “It’s not something I even want to rewind in my memory.”

The family’s cat, Desi, managed to escape the inferno with only burned feet.

Five days after that fire, the railroad’s locomotives were blamed for starting another wildfire at nearby Fish Lake that burned an estimated 50 acres and threatened a dozen homes. BNSF is expected to get the bill for that blaze, too. Total firefighting costs for the Fish Lake fire weren’t immediately available.

A new state investigative report says the railroad has been responsible for 159 wildfires in Spokane County since 1970, including 36 along its rail lines through Marshall and Cheney.

The cost to taxpayers for fighting those fires isn’t contained in the state report obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

Until the 1990s, most railroad-sparked fires were caused by brakes on rail cars and locomotives, but that source largely was eliminated with newer brake shoes. Sparks from exhaust stacks now are the leading cause of railroad fires, according to the state’s analysis.

“The line out of Spokane through Cheney is a steady climb out of Spokane, which can require the engines to work harder, get hotter and eject carbon particles,” the report says. “This area also has typically receptive fuels for fire starts – light grasses and pine needles.”

Attorney A.H. “Rusty” Robnett III, of Coeur d’Alene, who represents the railroad, declined to comment and directed questions to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas, based in Seattle.

The BNSF spokesman said he hadn’t seen the report and wouldn’t comment on its conclusion laying blame with the railroad.

“We will look into this further,” Melonas said. “Safety is a top priority of BNSF, and we certainly take steps to protect the railroad, the public and the environment.”

Since 2003, the state DNR has used a state law to collect $4.8 million in firefighting costs from corporations, businesses and individuals responsible for starting wildfires, according to DNR regional boss Loren Torgerson, of Colville.

The inch-thick DNR investigative report about the Aug. 11, 2007, fire near Marshall says investigators concluded railroad locomotives were responsible after all other possible causes – including arson, power lines, fireworks, lightning, campers and debris fires – were discounted.

In addition to Simmons’ home, two others were damaged. Other property owners lost timber. More than 200 firefighters and an aerial tanker plane dropping retardant in 90-degree weather battled three main fires and other related “spot” fires.

Two DNR fire investigators responded that day to the series of fires that began with one near Thorpe Road overpass in Spokane and five more scattered along the rail tracks leading to Marshall and Cheney. The two state fire investigators called the railroad dispatcher and were told the train suspected of starting the fires had stopped at Fishtrap Lake in Lincoln County and was being inspected by railroad employees, the report says.

“I asked if the train could be held so I could go assist and witness the inspection, (but) I was told that I didn’t have the power to do so,” DNR investigator Russell Hall said in his report.

The report says the DNR investigators later saw other BNSF locomotives emitting similar carbon particles that could have caused fires under the right conditions.

Chuck Johnson, DNR’s assistant regional manager, officially notified BNSF in December that firefighting costs could be assessed. That formal billing process, including review by the state attorney’s general’s office, is under way, according to DNR officials.

Simmons said “people suspected” the railroad was the cause of the fires last August, and he is pleased the state report conclusively places blame. “It’s good to see some accountability was assessed,” he said.

He contacted the railroad about a month after the fire and asked about recovery for his losses but says he never heard back. Simmons said he concluded he would have to join his nine neighbors, who had retained Spokane attorney Richard Eymann, who specializes in fire-damage recovery lawsuits for property owners.

Contacted Friday, Eymann only said: “We are involved in active negotiations with BNSF officials concerning those claims with the mutual hope that resolution can be reached without filing lawsuits.”

Simmons and his wife, Michelle, have been living in a rental home. “The last year of our life, we’ve been rebuilding,” Simmons said. “No one wants to go to court, but what are you going to do when there’s no response from the railroad and we have all these costs to put our lives back together?”

Bill Morlin can be reached at (509) 459-5444 or by e-mail at

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